Does the Bible Regard Same-Sex Intercourse

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Does the Bible Regard Same-Sex Intercourse
As Intrinsically Sinful?
An Evaluation of Mark Powell’s Essay in Faithful Conversation
(Sections I-III)
Robert A. J. Gagnon
Associate Professor of New Testament
Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Pittsburgh, PA 15206-2596
[email protected]
A note to readers: This article contains the first three sections of an essay, under the
same title, published in a collection of essays entitled Christian Sexuality: Normative and
Pastoral Principles (ed. Russell E. Saltzman; Minneapolis: Kirk House, 2003), 106-55.
The original essay was too long to be incorporated in its entirety in the Christian
Sexuality volume. Consequently, the first three sections of the seven-section essay were
summarized briefly for the print edition, while the unabridged original for sections I-III
was moved online.
Does the Bible regard same-sex intercourse as intrinsically sinful?1 An important
recent article by a Lutheran New Testament scholar answers “no” and makes an overall
presentation that will be perceived as supporting some homosexual unions. The purpose
of my essay is to make the case for a “yes” answer and to show that acceptance of any
homosexual activity constitutes a significant departure from the biblical witness—even in
view of alleged “new knowledge” claims.
The article to which I refer is “The Bible and Homosexuality,” written by Mark
Allan Powell, professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary. It appears in a
book that may play a critical role in Lutheran (ELCA) discussions on homosexuality:
Faithful Conversations: Christian Perspectives on Homosexuality (ed. James M. Childs,
Jr.; Fortress Press, 2003). As the back cover indicates, this book “was initiated by the
1
This article was completed on July 19, 2003. For fuller discussion of some points and extensive
interaction with other scholars, readers may want to consult my books, The Bible and Homosexual
Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001; hereafter B&HP); and, with Dan O. Via,
Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003). In addition to these, see the
following articles of mine: “A Comprehensive and Critical Review Essay of Homosexuality, Science, and
the ‘Plain Sense’ of Scripture, Part 1,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 22 (2000): 174-243 (Part 2
forthcoming in 2003); “The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Theology, Analogies, and Genes,” Theology
Matters 7, no. 6 (Nov/Dec 2001): 1-13 (also available online at
http://www.theologymatters.com/TMIssues/NovDec01.PDF); “Gays and the Bible: A Response to Walter
Wink,” Christian Century 119, no. 17 (Aug. 14-27, 2002): 40-43 (for a fuller version see “A Response to
Walter Wink’s Christian Century Review” at http://www.pts.edu/gagnonr.html); a letter printed in
Christian Century 119, no. 21 (Oct. 9-22, 2002): 67 (for a much fuller version see “A Rejoinder to Walter
Wink’s Views on the Bible and Homosexual Practice” at http://www.pts.edu/gagnonr.html); “Are There
Universally Valid Sex Precepts? A Critique of Walter Wink’s Views on the Bible and Homosexuality,”
Horizons in Biblical Theology 24 (2002): 72-125.
ELCA seminary presidents in response to a churchwide mandate” to study the feasibility
of blessing homosexual unions. The book is being promoted as a study guide for ELCA
churches. Powell’s article, which leads off (pp. 19-40), is probably the most important
essay in the book. For one thing, Powell is the only biblical scholar contributing to the
book and it is widely acknowledged that the most important obstacle to ecclesiastical
approval of homosexual practice is the Bible. For another, Powell is a well-published
scholar who generally has high regard for the authority of Scripture in the life of the
church.
Despite some attempts at being evenhanded and holding a number of views
congenial to a pro-complementarity stance, Powell inclines his presentation in favor of a
modified pro-homosex position.2 As expressed in his article, Powell believes that, perhaps
for “thousands” of homosexual Christians, the church can—and, in his opinion, should—
make exceptions to the Bible’s stance against homosexual practice. He claims that the
church can make “exceptions” and still remain within a spectrum of “biblically consistent
views.” Scripture, Powell contends, regards homosexual activity as “normally” sinful but
not “intrinsically” so. A male-female prerequisite for a sexual union is no more than “the
normal state of affairs” intended by God at creation (pp. 21-22, 29, 32). Undoubtedly,
pro-homosex advocates will cite Powell as an example of a moderate biblical scholar
who recognizes that Scripture is not an insuperable obstacle to the church’s acceptance of
at least some homosexual unions and thus the deliberate ordination of at least some “PSA
homosexuals” (practicing, self-affirming homosexuals).3
So far as pro-homosex treatments by biblical scholars are concerned, Powell’s is one
of the better ones. It is certainly more cautious and concerned about Scripture than most
such treatments. Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that the editor chose as the only
contributor with expertise in biblical studies someone who writes that the Bible can be
made amenable to the acceptance of some homosexual unions. This slants the
presentation of the biblical witness in this book—the most important witness for procomplementarity advocates—toward one perspective.4 It raises questions about fairness
2
Some advocates of homosexual behavior have coined the compound word homosex, playing off of the use
of the simple word sex as both noun and adjective. It helpfully focuses dialogue on the pros and cons of
homosexual practice rather than on the pros and cons of homosexual persons (by the latter I mean persons
who experience exclusive or predominant impulses for same-sex intercourse at a given segment of life).
The term pro-homosexual confuses the distinction between practice and persons. Proponents of homosexual
practice do not love those who engage in such practice more than those who uphold man-woman
intercourse as the exclusive norm. Indeed, from the standpoint of Scripture, they love them less, insofar as
they condone a form of behavior displeasing to God and harmful to the participants. To describe my own
position, I prefer the expression pro-complementarity or, for short, pro-comp, because it stresses what is
missing in homosexual behavior and essential for God’s blessing: the sex complementarity of the
participants. Given the Bible’s strong and uncompromising witness against all same-sex intercourse and the
similarly strong witness of the church for nearly two millennia, it seems reasonable to place under the
rubric pro-homosex any position that entertains the legitimacy or acceptability of some homosexual
behavior, even if only as “exceptions” or as the lesser of two evils.
3
I have personally encountered this in some ELCA presentations.
4
The same problem has developed in the selection of the ELCA Task Force for Studies on Sexuality,
where the only biblical scholar serving, Terence Fretheim, is on record as strongly endorsing a change in
the church’s historic stance against all homosexual practice. To comment on the roles given Powell and
Fretheim is not to impugn their credentials; both are able scholars with a particular point of view. Rather, it
is to criticize a process that has not given adequate representation, in key positions, to biblical scholars who
regard Scripture as unequivocal and strong in its opposition to all forms of same-sex intercourse. To be
2
and balance.5 The imbalance cannot be undone by the article that I am writing here,
simply because this article does not appear in a volume published by the official Lutheran
publishing house, with all its resources and connections within the ELCA. Nor does it
appear in a book that carries the imprimatur of the ELCA seminary presidents as an
important study guide of the church. However, I do hope to show, for those who read this
article, that a “biblically consistent view” does not permit “exceptions” to a normative
stance against homosexual practice. Rather, the gospel of the grace and love of our Lord
Jesus Christ calls for maintaining an exception-less stance against homosexual practice in
the context of an outreach of love to those violating such a standard.
I. Does Powell Advocate Exceptions?
A. Powell’s stance on “exceptions” and Genesis 2:18
Powell understands his article as not so much taking a position on the Bible and
homosexual practice as merely delineating two plausible ends of “a spectrum of
‘biblically consistent views’” and indicating what sort of arguments would have to be
made to support the view on each end. The two views are: (1) “the biblical texts are so
uniform in their condemnation of homosexual acts as to make the granting of any
exception for any reason almost unthinkable”; and (2) “the biblical texts that condemn
homosexual acts are so geared toward regulating sexual preferences” that the Church
sure, the Task Force has read literature from biblical scholars on both sides of the debate. Also, in April
2003 the Task Force listened to a panel consisting of two biblical scholars, as well as two ethicists,
representing different perspectives. However, in terms of power and influence, oral presentations before the
Task Force—which, at any rate, include full representation from the pro-homosex side—are an altogether
different thing from being the lone biblical studies expert sitting on the Task Force or writing in a book
commissioned by the ELCA seminary presidents to serve as an important study guide for the ELCA. One
can also see bias in the reporting of the aforementioned panel by The Lutheran (David L. Miller, “Sex task
force struggles diverse science, theology,” June 2003, pp. 44-45). The biblical scholar endorsing committed
homosexual unions, Ralph Klein, was given 25 lines in the article. The biblical scholar upholding the
church’s historic stance against homosexual unions, Craig Koester, was given less than a fourth of that
space, only six lines (p. 45).
5
As for the remainder of the volume, one article is pro-“comp” (James Nestingen) and another is prohomosex (Martha Stortz). Readers may characterize two others as neutral or slightly pro-homosex (Richard
Perry & José David Rodriguez; Daniel Olson); similarly, James Childs’ introduction (note, for example, his
comments on Helmut Thielicke, p. 10). Nestingen and Stortz balance each other out, while the rest of the
volume provides a neutral-to-pro-homosex tilt. Powell’s article tips the book as a whole in the pro-homosex
direction, favoring “exceptions” to an otherwise “normal state of affairs.” Childs recommends to readers
that they begin at the beginning: “The best way to work through the volume is to read from start to finish”
because “there is a logical progression in the arrangement of the chapters” (p. 15). This recommendation
underscores the importance of the placement of Powell’s article for the volume as a whole and for its
influence on readers. One additional note on a possible criterion for selecting contributors: Each of the
scholars writing an article hails from a different ELCA seminary, except for Perry and Rodríguez (but they
collaborate on the same article) and Childs and Powell (but Childs writes the introduction). Three of the
eight ELCA seminaries do not have a contributor in this book. Cf. Robert A. J. Gagnon, review of Faithful
Conversation: Christian Perspectives on Homosexuality (ed. James M. Childs), online:
http://www.robgagnon.net/articles/homoFaithConvReviewRBL.pdf.
3
should “allow for the sanctioning of at least some gay and lesbian relationships” (p. 38).
According to Powell, he is not yet convinced that either case can be made with certainty.6
I see two problems with this characterization.7 The first is that Powell does clearly
inject his own stance in the second-to-last paragraph of the article. There he cites Jesus’
stance toward Sabbath law and concludes:
Personally, I . . . strive to avoid adoption of either extreme. . . . For me, the
question becomes: Do we require homosexual people to sacrifice the experience of
sharing life intimately with a partner in order to fulfill God’s standards of holiness
as perfectly as possible? Or do we allow a merciful exception to those standards in
the belief that God would not want such sacrifices imposed on people in
burdensome and harsh ways (see Matt. 11:28-30; 23:4)? . . . The Bible . . . teaches
that God prefers mercy to sacrifice. . . . I believe that the Church should not
dismiss or ignore biblical teachings against homosexual relations but that the
Church should follow the lead of Jesus [regarding his position toward Sabbath
law] in recognizing that exceptions to the prohibited behavior must be granted in
some instances to enable homosexual people to experience life as abundantly as
possible. (38-39; emphases added, except for prefers)
Powell does not say: “I believe that the Church could grant exceptions.” He says:
“I believe that the Church should . . . must” grant exceptions. The first two sentences of
the extract establish clearly the circumstances that would justify exceptions: The
alternative to “requir[ing] homosexual people to sacrifice the experience of sharing life
intimately with a partner” is “allow[ing] a merciful exception to those standards in the
belief that God would not want such sacrifices imposed.” In other words, the church
should grant exceptions when the prohibition of same-sex intercourse would prevent
homosexual persons from “sharing life intimately with a partner.” Powell also thinks it is
possible to have such exceptions in the context of “not dismiss[ing] or ignor[ing] biblical
teachings against homosexual relations.” From these remarks I suspect most readers will
draw the conclusion that Powell, in weighing the two “ends” of the spectrum, comes
down fairly strongly on a modified version of the second (i.e., granting exceptions).8
Even if Powell intended this next-to-last paragraph of his article as a parenthetical
6
This is the understanding that I have from my e-mail correspondence with Powell. I cannot say, though,
that I derive this impression, at least the whole of it, from the article itself. Outside of the article, in the
“Author’s Forum” located at the end of the book, he does comment: “I still do not know for sure what I
believe about this [i.e., the homosexuality issue]” (p. 129). This kind of tentativeness does not always come
across in a number of statements in the article. Childs, too, states in the introduction that Powell “is more
interested in prompting us to consider (and reconsider) what the God of the Bible would have us do than he
is in stumping for a particular position” (p. 5; emphasis mine). Yet, even he—a friend and colleague of
Powell’s—speaks in terms of a comparison (more this than that), not a contrast (not this but that). Childs
also summarizes Powell’s article as follows: “Powell’s analysis . . . leads us to consider the possibility that
the church might recognize some exceptions” (p. 4; emphasis mine). Indeed it does that and more.
7
Of course, the very fact that Powell places the position of “allowing for the sanctioning of at least some
gay and lesbian relationships” on a spectrum of biblically consistent views is itself testimony to Powell’s
leanings and bias.
8
Although Powell claims that he “strives to avoid adoption of either extreme,” the position that he adopts
fits best with the second “extreme,” namely, the position that “favors some sort of Church action to allow
for sanctioning of at least some gay and lesbian relationships” (p. 38).
4
afterthought or personal aside, it still stands in tension both with an objective of simply
laying out the two main options and with a claim to personal uncertainty.9
There is something even more problematic for any claim to not advocating for a
position. This brings us to the second point: The personal opinion expressed at the end of
the article seems both to color significantly his exegetical analysis throughout the paper
and to be mandated by that same analysis, at least in terms of broad strokes. In other
words, his personal aside is inseparable from his exegetical analysis: each feeds on the
other.10 This comes across unmistakably in the conclusion to the section entitled
“Interpretation of the Bible for Today” (2-3 pages before he gives his personal opinion):
The Bible never says that it is God’s will for people to be able to gratify all of their
sexual desires. . . . The Bible does indicate, however, that it is God’s will for
individuals to have the opportunity to share their lives with intimate partners (Gen
2:18-25). The Church may set limits regarding such partnerships (prohibiting
marriage to close relatives and discouraging marriage to unbelievers), but to insist
on limits [to sexually intimate life partnerships] that deny thousands of people the
possibility of such relationships altogether is to fly in the face of Scripture. Even
while paying heed to the Bible’s prohibitions against same-sex intercourse, the
Church also must recognize God’s clear declaration that it is not good for a person
to have to live life alone. (p. 36; emphases added)
Powell does not say, in tentative manner: “One wonders whether insisting on
limits . . . flies in the face of Scripture.” No, Powell is quite categorical: The church is
definitely flying in the face of Scripture when it maintains an absolute policy barring all
homosexual unions. Powell says that the church may set limits by excluding some types
of “intimate partnerships” altogether—but only so long as other opportunities for such
partnerships exist. For example, the church can maintain an exception-less policy on
incest because persons involved in incestuous unions are not “so incest-oriented that a
meaningful nonincestuous sexual relationship would be impossible for them” (p. 35). The
use of a permissive may is followed by a clause with an adversative conjunction but,
suggesting that the following specifies what must not be permitted. The church may have
an exception-less policy on incest; but having the same sort of policy with respect to
homosexual relations “flies in the face of Scripture.” Now, “to fly in the face of” means
“to stand or act forthrightly or brazenly in defiance or contradiction of” (Webster).11
9
He may have had some uncertainty about precisely what would constitute exceptions (but see p. 36,
discussed below). Regardless, the wording of the penultimate paragraph does not communicate much doubt
to readers about the fact that such exceptions should be granted.
10
Naturally, there is nothing shocking or scandalous about the fact that an author’s opinions and exegetical
analysis are mutually interrelated. My point here is merely that readers must assess the degree to which the
personal opinion expressed at the end of the paper is merely an “aside.”
11
Also: “to act in direct opposition to” (Webster). If Powell meant by “flies in the face of Scripture” merely
“holds a position that is problematic in relation to Scripture,” he has expressed himself badly.
(1) Something that is “problematic” is merely “difficult to solve or decide,” “questionable,” or “open
to debate” (Webster). Such a meaning is a world away from that of “acting brazenly in defiance or
contradiction of” something.
(2) It also does not fit the sentence structure well: The church may have an absolute prohibition of
incest but to insist on an absolute prohibition of all homosexual relations is to hold a scripturally
problematic position?
5
Readers will be hard-pressed not to draw the inference: Powell believes the church
should not have an absolute or exception-less policy on homosexual unions. The church
may have one on incest, but not one on same-sex intercourse.
We will discuss shortly in section I.B. below the exegetical and hermeneutical
assumptions that Powell makes to justify his position on “exceptions.” It is convenient to
introduce one of those assumptions now since it speaks to what Powell means by
Scripture in the phrase “flies in the face of Scripture.”
•
Powell’s interpretation of Gen 2:18. Scripture in the excerpt above is essentially a
cipher for Genesis 2:18-25, the only text cited in the immediate context—
particularly 2:18 (“It is not good for the human to be alone”), which is explicitly
alluded to in the last sentence of the excerpt from p. 36, and, to a lesser extent,
2:24 (“and the two shall become one flesh”).12 It is this scripture that dominates
Powell’s discussion of a case for exceptions (pp. 30-36). It constantly reappears in
the expressions “life partner(ship),” which Powell connects with Gen 2:18 (p. 22)
and “becoming one,” which Powell obviously cites from Gen 2:24. From Gen
2:18 Powell concludes that a “celibacy requirement” imposed on a homosexual
Christian, particularly a homosexual Christian who yearns intensely for a life
partner, renders that person’s life “not good” and “displeasing to God” (pp. 30-
(3) Powell nowhere suggests in his article that the very concept of exceptions to the Bible’s stance
against same-sex intercourse flies in the face of Scripture. To be sure, Powell does indicate in his article
that the Bible’s prohibition of homosexual practice places a “heavy burden of proof” on anyone who wants
to argue for exceptions (pp. 28, 35). However, that is not the same thing as saying that implementing
exceptions would necessarily fly in the face of Scripture. In fact, Powell frequently points out in the first
half of his article that, while “all references [in the Bible] to sexual activity between persons of the samesex are negative” (p. 32), Scripture does not regard same-sex intercourse as intrinsically sinful.
Consequently, exceptions are at least theoretically possible, even if difficult, and do not necessarily conflict
with Scripture’s prohibitions. Yes, the sentence immediately following his remark about flying in
Scripture’s face (p. 36) does refer to the importance of “paying heed to the Bible’s prohibitions against
same-sex intercourse.” Yet it does so not as an alternative to making exceptions but rather as a concern that
must be upheld while in the act of making exceptions.
(4) Powell’s message on p. 36 about not flying in Scripture’s face not only anticipates his personal
aside at the end of the article; it is virtually identical to it: “I believe that the Church should not dismiss or
ignore biblical teachings against homosexual relations but that the Church should . . . [recognize] that
exceptions to the prohibited behavior must be granted.” To recognize that the church must grant exceptions
to Scripture’s prohibition of homosexual behavior is not to dismiss or ignore, much less fly in the face of,
the Bible’s prohibition of homosexual relations. To insist on an exception-less prohibition of homosexual
relations is to fly in the face of Scripture.
In short, at least as Powell frames the matter in his article, having limited exceptions within a
normative policy of prohibiting homoerotic unions is the best way to avert flying in the face of Scripture.
Of course, it is always possible that Powell did not accurately communicate in his article what he intended
to say. Readers, however, can only react to what Powell wrote; not to what Powell may have believed but
did not communicate. Accordingly, I have to concentrate my critique on what is actually written in his
article. My own view is the reverse of the one expressed by Powell on p. 36; namely, that a policy with
exceptions—not an exception-less policy—flies in the face of Scripture.
12
Genesis 2:24 is important for Powell because, in his mind, the reference to “becoming one” is a precise
synonym for “not be alone” in 2:18. That is to say, to “be alone” in the sense of Gen 2:18 is to be lacking a
“becoming-one” relationship. However, Gen 2:18 is more important to Powell than 2:24 because only in
Gen 2:18 is the claim made that it is “not good” to be alone. For Powell this text implies that everyone who
is not in an intimate “becoming-one” relationship is in a “not-good” condition in God’s eyes. Consequently,
everyone must be given at least the opportunity to find a life partner.
6
32). In addition to Gen 2:18-25, Powell also makes an appeal to the two New
Testament texts that speak of celibacy as a gift (Matt 19:11 and 1 Cor 7:9; p. 29)
and to Hos 6:6 (God desires mercy and not sacrifice), which Matthew twice
quotes (9:13; 12:7; p. 38). However, these texts play an ancillary role and only
work in conjunction with Powell’s particular reading of Gen 2:18-25. When
Powell summarizes his exegetical conclusions, he contrasts the Bible’s consistent
proscription of homosexual relations with his interpretation of one scripture, Gen
2:18-25: On the one hand, “the Bible teaches that it is the will of God for all
people to have the opportunity of sharing life with a partner, a person with whom
they form an intimate bond so as to ‘become one’”; on the other hand, the Bible
consistently regards homosexual relations “as a departure from God’s design” in
creation (p. 32).13 In effect, Powell uses Gen 2:18—it is not good for a person to
be alone—as a crowbar for prying exceptions from Scripture’s absolute
proscription of same-sex intercourse.14
The sentence that immediately precedes the remark about “flying in the face of
Scripture” makes quite clear who these exceptions are: “thousands” of homosexual
persons who would otherwise be denied “the opportunity to share their lives with
intimate [life-] partners,” in a manner approximating Gen 2:18-25. How might they be
denied the opportunity? Two pages before drawing his conclusion about “flying in the
face of Scripture” he discusses the fact that
the Church is left with thousands of homosexual Christians for whom neither
therapy nor celibacy appears viable. They experience what Paul calls “burning”
for a life-partner. . . . They want what most humans want—to fall in love and to
form a family with one special person. . . . When they seek to obey what seems to
be the teaching of the Bible (and of the Church), they discover that their lives
nevertheless fit a pattern that God explicitly calls “not good” (Gen. 2:18). And so
they turn to the Church again and ask, “What should we do?” (p. 34; emphasis
added)
How are these “thousands of homosexual Christians” denied altogether “the
opportunity of sharing their lives with intimate partners” (p. 36, 38)? They are denied it
when “neither therapy nor celibacy appears viable” for them and the church makes no
13
It should be noted in fairness that Powell does not just set Gen 2:18-25 over against the explicit
proscriptions of homosexual practice in the Bible; he also sees elements in Gen 2:18-25 that are in tension
with any attempt at making exceptions to those proscriptions. Nevertheless, his primary use of Gen 2:18-25
is as a counterweight to the Bible’s prohibitions of homosexual relations.
14
I do not see this “crowbar” metaphor as a caricature of Powell’s argument. In context Powell is not just
using Gen 2:18 as a text for raising questions about exceptions. He is using it to declare that exceptions
must be made. He does not say on p. 36 (or on p. 38) merely that Gen 2:18 moves us to wonder about
homosexual persons who cannot obtain “life-partners” from a heterosexual pairing. Nor does he say here
just that having a cavalier attitude about the difficulties of “requiring” a celibate life from homosexuals
flies in the face of Scripture. He says here that, while the church may retain an exception-less policy on
incest, to insist on an exception-less policy as regards homosexual unions is to stand in brazen defiance of
the teachings of Scripture, particularly of the declaration in Gen 2:18. It is true that elsewhere in his article
Powell also brings into the discussion issues of fixed sexual orientation, intense yearning for an intimate
life partner, and commitment. Yet, in Powell’s paper, the main contact point between these issues and
Scripture is Gen 2:18.
7
exceptions in its prohibition of same-sex intercourse (p. 34). In other words, when one
inquires into Powell’s criteria for discerning “exceptions,” the only ones that he leaves
readers with, and the ones that he presents as sufficient, are:
(1) a deep personal dissatisfaction with celibacy coupled with a burning desire for an
intimate partner (celibacy is not a viable option);15
(2) a loving monogamous commitment to a “life-partnership”;
(3) a relatively exclusive and fixed homoerotic “orientation” (therapy is not a viable
option).16
To refuse life partnerships to homosexual Christians who satisfy all three criteria—
Powell estimates that there are thousands of them—is to “fly in the face of Scripture” (p.
36), impose sacrifices “in burdensome and harsh ways” (p. 38), and foreclose an
opportunity “to experience life as abundantly as possible” (p. 39).
Powell may have changed his stance on this since the publication of his article; or he
may not have worded his remarks in a manner that would clearly reflect his views.17
15
Powell notes: “[N]ot all who have been unable to find a partner in life are utterly miserable; some may
experience the lack of a desired relationship as only a mild disappointment. In the latter case, the point may
be simply that one aspect of the person’s life is ‘not good,’ or at least not as good as it could be” (p. 31).
The implied converse is: Some do find singleness to be an “utterly miserable” condition and experience the
lack of a sexually intimate relationship as a major disappointment that makes their whole life seem “not
good.” It is such persons who are good candidates for exceptions.
16
Incidentally, these three criteria match up with the three things that Powell mentions at the end of his
article that a person must believe in order to favor, faithfully, ecclesiastical “sanctioning of at least some
gay and lesbian relationships” (p. 38).
17
My e-mail correspondence with Powell indicates that, for the moment at least, he does not regard
exclusive orientation and a commitment to a lifelong and monogamous relationship as sufficient grounds
for exceptional status, although he is open to changing that position in future ELCA discussion. Yet he
remains uncomfortable, scripturally and pastorally, with insisting on lifelong celibacy for homosexuals for
whom therapy does not appear to work. He thinks that the church must be open to allowing exceptions,
though he does not know what those exceptions might be. I do not see any other consistent criteria for
exceptions possible than the three suggested in his article. If these criteria, taken in combination, would not
suffice, what would?
At one point the tentative suggestion was made that the most obvious candidates for exceptional status
would be homosexual persons who not only met these three criteria but who also did not express intimacy
through sex acts that the Bible expressly prohibits: penetration or orgasm. The image of two elderly
lesbians who just like to cuddle came to mind. From a biblical standpoint, I do not see how this could
qualify as an exception, for three reasons:
(1) This additional criterion for exceptional status has a legalistic air to it. It assumes that the Bible’s
prohibition is limited to physical stimulation of the genitalia—an assumption that does not correlate well
with Jesus’ sexual ethic. Jesus added an interior component to the prohibition of adultery with his statement
about adultery of the heart. Does the prohibition of homosexual behavior get an exemption from an interior
component (active homosexual desire), to say nothing of overt erotic kissing and fondling? To be
consistent, one would have to maintain that the biblical prohibition of adultery does not preclude a married
person from erotically kissing and fondling persons other than one’s spouse. The same logic would also
have to be applied to the biblical prohibitions of incest, prostitution, and bestiality. Clearly such actions
would violate the spirit, and probably the letter, of the prohibitions.
(2) Practically speaking, the whole idea is unworkable. What homosexual persons, after receiving the
church’s blessing to engage in some erotic activity, would then seek to stave off orgasm for the duration of
the “intimate partnership”? And how would the church have any idea whether two people, erotically
attracted to one another and sharing the same accommodations, had stopped short of orgasmic activity?
8
However, Powell cannot blame his readers for gaining the impression that: (1) he
advocates a position that favors exceptions to the Bible’s prohibition of same-sex
intercourse; and (2) he views as exceptional cases “thousands of homosexual Christians
for whom neither therapy nor celibacy appears viable.” Furthermore, readers will likely
surmise that Powell makes these exceptions in the context of embracing the Bible’s
prohibition of homosexual behavior as “the normal state of affairs.”
What other assumptions does Powell make that more or less mandate his stance on
exceptions?
B. Three other assumptions by Powell necessary for “exceptions”
In addition to his particular interpretation of Gen 2:18, Powell makes three other
assumptions—erroneous assumptions, in my view—that contribute to his “exceptions
view” at the end of the article.
•
The Bible is unaware of homosexual orientation. Powell assumes: “At the time
the Bible was written, the concept of ‘sexual orientation’ was unknown” (p. 19).
Powell believes that it never would have occurred to the biblical authors,
including Paul, that some people would always be incapable of experiencing
sexual fulfillment in heterosexual marriages.
What if [heterosexual] marriages are not a realistic option? The latter
question never comes up in the Bible but is often asked today in light of a
modern understanding of “sexual orientation.” (p. 29)18
The biblical texts that condemn homosexual acts are so geared toward
regulating sexual preferences that their application to persons of
homosexual orientation is a matter that merits special consideration. (p.
38)19
Wouldn’t the church be culpable for setting up a circumstance that made resistance to temptation nigh
impossible?
(3) There seems to be going on in this example a muddling of the distinction between eroticism and
the affection of friendship. It is important to underscore that the current church policy no more seeks to bar
affection between two people of the same sex than it seeks to bar affection between close blood relations. It
is only when that same-sex affection becomes erotic that it becomes problematic from a scriptural
standpoint. Someone might ask: How do you know when that affection turns erotic? My answer: Any
person who cannot tell the difference between erotic affection and non-erotic affection in dealings with a
child is a candidate for criminal prosecution. People know what the difference is. Two people of the same
sex can be as close as David and Jonathan were in their non-erotic friendship (cf. B&HP 146-54). So long
as an erotic dimension is not introduced, the church rejoices. In the end, if Powell continues to believe that
exceptions must be made, I do not see any alternative but for him to embrace the three combined criteria
that he appears to lay out in his article.
18
“The Bible never mentions the phenomenon of homosexual orientation as such. . . . The Bible offers
little counsel as to what homosexuals who believe in Jesus Christ ought to do if they are to live as God
intends” (p. 32).
19
Although this statement appears at the end of his article, where Powell lays out one end of a spectrum of
“biblically consistent views,” to me it seems a no-brainer that Powell, at least at the time of writing the
article, had signed on to it. (1) He clearly states in the first paragraph of his article that the Bible had no
concept of sexual orientation (p. 19). (2) He goes on to say that the existence of fixed homosexual
orientations poses significant questions that biblical authors never contemplated. (3) Immediately following
the statement about the Bible’s alleged awareness only of “sexual preferences” Powell states his view that
9
Raising uncertainty about what the Bible would say to persons with a
relatively fixed “homosexual orientation” is crucial for Powell’s ultimate position
on exceptions—the “thousands of homosexual Christians for whom neither
therapy nor celibacy appears viable” (p.34). Powell follows this remark about
“thousands” with a query:
When they seek to obey what seems to be the teaching of the Bible (and the
Church), they discover that their lives nevertheless fit a pattern that God
explicitly calls “not good” (Gen. 2:18). And so they turn to the Church again
and ask, “What should we do?” This is the context in which the Church must
consider whether there may be any exceptions to the biblical prohibitions
against homosexual behavior. (p. 34; my emphasis)
It is the issue of orientation that distinguishes homosexual practice from incest
and raises an acute problem for the church:
People involved in incestuous relationships do not usually maintain that they
are so incest-oriented that a meaningful nonincestuous relationship would be
impossible for them. The pressing point for the Church with regard to
homosexuality occurs over this issue. (p. 35)
The concept of a relatively fixed homosexual orientation, alongside of a deep
dissatisfaction with celibacy, is the context for considering exceptions inasmuch
as persons exclusively attracted to the same sex are left unable to fulfill “their
God-given desire for an intimate life-partner” (ibid.).20
“exceptions must be granted” so that homosexual persons who otherwise would have to sacrifice intimate
life partnerships—presumably because of their exclusive homosexual orientation—might have the
opportunity to experience such. In an early e-mail communication Powell did in fact confirm my
supposition; but in a later e-mail he stated that the view expressed on p. 38 about sexual preferences does
not, in the end, hold up. However, if the latter is now Powell’s view, then there is no case for favoring
exceptions (see next note), which in turn would necessitate a disavowal of Powell’s personal belief on pp.
38-39 and his flies-in-the-face-of-Scripture comment on p. 36. Readers can decide for themselves how to
interpret what Powell wrote in his article.
20
Accordingly, if Powell does not believe, or no longer believes, that the biblical condemnation of
homosexual acts is in any significant way tied to an alleged unawareness of sexual orientation and its
intractability (see the immediately preceding note), then I do not know how Powell can continue to
maintain any kind of case for exceptions—or even for presenting exceptions as a “biblically consistent
view.”
(1) If knowledge of a fixed sexual orientation would not have mattered, for example, to Paul’s strong
condemnation of same-sex intercourse, then a contemporary appropriation of that rejection is utterly
unaffected by knowledge that someone might not develop heterosexual desires. Then, too, the issue of the
“viability” of therapy or celibacy for exclusive homosexuals is quite beside the point since that issue is
directly dependent upon the special circumstance of an exclusive homoerotic orientation, which in turn has
already been discounted as a relevant factor. Consequently, the prohibition is absolute, at least so far as
matters of orientation and imposed celibacy are concerned.
(2) What about the consideration of a “committed and loving relationship” (p. 38)? Would that be
enough to wring exceptions from the Bible’s prohibition? No. Powell already affirms that “The simple
demonstration that same-sex couples are able to form loving, committed relationships is not sufficient” (p.
35). He then cites committed incestuous unions as a case in point. To be sure, he immediately points to a
10
•
The Bible is unaware of committed homosexual unions. Powell also assumes that
no biblical text ever specifically comments on the morality of sexual
relations between two men or two women who are in a loving
relationship characterized by life-long commitment. Thus, when two
Christian men or women ask the Church to bless a relationship in which
they will become romantic, spiritual, and probably sexual “life
partners,”21 the Church is presented with a situation that never comes up,
as such, in scripture. (p. 19)
In consequence of this, Powell insists:
We cannot know for certain what Paul would have prescribed for the
redeemed Christian who continues to have homosexual impulses or22 to
engage in homosexual activity that is neither promiscuous nor exploitative.
(p. 31; my emphasis)23
Indeed, Powell goes so far as to say in the next sentence that “no projection
of what Paul ‘might have thought’ about this situation can be determinative for
the Church’s deliberations” since “canonical authority extends only to what is
actually written” in Scripture (p. 31).24 According to Powell, one of the three key
deficiency in using an analogy from incest by noting that incest usually does not arise out of exclusive
sexual orientation toward close blood relations. However, once one concedes that allegedly new knowledge
about sexual orientation does not merit special consideration, the alleged deficiency in the incest analogy is
removed.
(3) What is left to enable one to use Gen 2:18 (not good to be alone) as a basis for prying exceptions
from a biblical prohibition? Nothing. Certainly not the three “key points in the debate” identified by Powell
at the end of his article: the price of imposed celibacy, the degree to which the relationship is committed
and loving, and the extent to which biblical texts are unaware of sexual orientation (pp. 37-38). Certainly
not a “mercy, not sacrifice” principle since Jesus, Matthew, Paul, and the whole early church operated with
this principle without the slightest indication that this principle stood in tension with an absolute prohibition
of all homosexual practice.
21
Actually, statistically, they almost certainly will not become “life partners,” whatever the intent at the
time of entering the union. The church should not be fooled into thinking otherwise.
22
Powell writes “or” but the context suggests that he means “and” (see below).
23
As we shall see, these remarks stand in contradiction to what Powell admits elsewhere in his article.
24
In context, what does “what Paul would/might have prescribed/thought” (p. 31) refer to? Does the
context of Powell’s written remarks suggest uncertainty only over what specific expression of disapproval
Paul might have chosen (as Powell has maintained to me in our correspondence)? Or is the uncertainty
broader than that, extending to whether Paul would have disapproved at all? In my view, the wording of the
paragraph dictates the latter: The church cannot know whether Paul would have approved or disapproved of
a nonexploitative homosexual union between two persons of relatively fixed homosexual orientation.
The broader context (which begins on p. 29) starts with two operating assumptions: heterosexual
marriage is “the normal state of affairs” and the idea of an exclusive “homosexual orientation” was
unknown to the authors of Scripture. Powell then asks what persons with a homosexual orientation are to
do “if they are unable to find sexual fulfillment in heterosexual marriage but are also prohibited from
forming intimate relationships with same-sex partners?” (p. 29). He proceeds to discuss the pros and cons
of “celibacy requirements” for a page-and-a-half.
Finally Powell inquires into “what Paul would have counseled a homosexual believer.” He quickly
(and wrongly) discounts celibacy and suggests (as an alternative, though it is in fact a supplement) that Paul
11
“would have hoped” that the Spirit would “remove” homosexual desires and “replace” them with
heterosexual ones. Then Powell asks: “But if that did not happen, then what?” I now quote the remainder of
the paragraph, separating the sentences and labeling them with letters for easy structural reference. Again,
the two operating premises of Powell’s discussion are: (1) heterosexual marriage is “the normal [but not
necessarily sinful] state of affairs”; and (2) the concept of a relatively fixed and exclusive homosexual
orientation was unknown to the Bible’s authors.
(a) Some theologians argue that Paul would not want his remarks about the disgraceful sexual
antics of godless Romans to be used to force some Christians into a life where the familial
blessings that God willed for all creation (Gen. 2:18) become unavailable to them.
(b) Others insist that Paul would never have “caved-in” on this matter; he would have favored
excommunicating Christians who engage in homosexual activities just as he did believers who
were involved in incestuous relationships (1 Cor. 5:1-5).
(c) But all of this is speculation: we cannot know for certain what Paul would have prescribed
for the redeemed Christian who continues to have homosexual impulses or to engage in
homosexual activity that is neither promiscuous nor exploitative. In any case, no projection of
what Paul “might have thought” about this situation can be determinative for the Church’s
deliberations. Canonical authority extends only to what is actually written in documents that the
Church confesses to be Scripture, not to what thoughts the authors of those documents might
have entertained but did not record. (p. 31; my emphasis)
It seems to me that the context makes absolutely clear what Powell is referring to when he says in
(c) that we can neither know, nor make determinative, what Paul would/might have prescribed/thought;
namely, whether Paul would have permitted such a relationship or would have excommunicated a Christian
who engaged in such activity. The issue is not simply: We do not know the precise form of expression that
Paul’s disapproval would take (e.g., excommunication, reproof with additional chances at repentance,
recommending heterosexual marriage anyway). Rather: Given that Paul did not know about how intractable
a “homosexual orientation” can be, it is futile to speculate whether Paul would have approved such a
relationship or excommunicated the person who engaged in it. Nor can such speculation carry any
canonical authority since only what is “actually written” carries “canonical authority.” The way Powell
structures his comments indicates that point (a) constitutes one of the things that we allegedly cannot know
for certain:
(a) Some theologians argue that Paul would not have forbidden a homoerotic life partnership.
(b) Others insist that he would have excommunicated someone who entered such a partnership.
(c) But all of this [(a) and (b)] is speculation. We can’t know for certain what Paul would have
prescribed had he known that the Spirit does not always replace homoerotic urges with
heterosexual ones—whether ‘not forbidding’ (i.e., permitting) or excommunication. The concept
of sexual orientation was unavailable in Paul’s day so it is futile to speculate what Paul would
have done had he been aware of it. “The Bible offers little counsel on what homosexuals who
believe in Jesus Christ ought to do if they are to live as God intends” (p. 32). The church has to
forge a new path, using the Bible as a guide but recognizing that the Bible did not entirely
anticipate the circumstances that we now face.
It is this uncertainty about whether Paul, and Scripture generally, would have forbidden or approved
of loving, committed homosexual relationships for Christians with exclusive homosexual dispositions, that
enables Powell to ask subsequently:
[I]f there are persons in the Church and in the world at large who cannot find fulfillment of
their God-given desire for an intimate life-partner through heterosexual relationships, is it
God’s will for them never to find such fulfillment at all? Or, would it be better for them to
fulfill that yearning for a life-partner through a bond that might seem unnatural and even
“degrading” to traditional Christians but is nevertheless satisfying to the couple themselves? (p.
35)
In sum, Powell’s presentation of a “biblically consistent view” that allows for ecclesiastical
sanctioning of some homosexual relationships—and Powell’s own preference for “exceptions—is
12
issues in determining whether to sanction some homosexual relations is the
degree to which “a committed and loving relationship between two same-sex
partners” can approximate heterosexual marriage (p. 38).
•
The Bible does not regard same-sex intercourse as intrinsically sinful. This is
perhaps the most important assumption25 that Powell makes, since he is concerned
with “the relevance of the biblical perspective” (p.33).26 Were Powell to concede
that the Bible’s prohibition is absolute, his case for exceptions would fold. So he
contends instead, “the Bible presents sexual activity between same-sex partners as
intrinsically unnatural but not as intrinsically sinful.” (p. 35). By “not intrinsically
sinful” Powell apparently means that approval of some homosexual activity is
possible, at least hypothetically.27 With respect to Rom 1:26-27, in particular, he
states:
predicated on the assumption that we cannot know for certain whether Paul would have approved or
disapproved of committed life partnerships for homosexual Christians with fixed sexual orientations who
experienced a continuous “burning” for such partnerships. Nor would such theories carry any canonical
weight because they do not belong to what is “actually written” in the canon of Scripture.
25
This is not an assumption in the same sense that the previous two are. Nowhere does Powell argue that
case that the biblical prohibitions do not take into account issues of intractable orientation and committed
homoerotic unions; he simply assumes it. However, as regards his claim that the Bible does not view
homosexual behavior as intrinsically sinful, he at least attempts an argument. At the same time, since (as I
will argue) this claim appears to be imposed on the text at several key places it is not out of place to list it
as an assumption. In fact, the two prior assumptions regarding orientation and exploitation necessitate this
one.
26
To say that this assumption may be the most important of the four is not a comment about existential
priority for Powell but rather about logical necessity. There is a certain dialectical, or chicken-and-egg,
relationship between the first three assumptions (Gen 2:18, sexual orientation, committed relationships) and
the claim to a normative but non-absolute prohibition. It is possible that the latter arose as a response to the
former, or that all four developed in Powell’s thinking from Powell’s knowledge of homosexuals and their
relationships. Powell does not specifically comment on such acquaintances in his article but at many points
it appears to be the subtext (e.g., in the final two paragraphs of the article).
27
We should be clear about what Powell means when he says “not intrinsically sinful” (p. 35; cf. p. 22:
“intrinsically derogatory”), an expression that he parallels with “not necessarily sinful” (p. 28, 29; cf. p. 24:
“necessarily regarded as wrong”). That the two expressions are used synonymously by Powell is apparent
when one compares the following statements: “The Bible presents sexual activity between same-sex
partners as intrinsically unnatural but not as intrinsically sinful” (p.35); “What is unnatural is not
necessarily sinful” (p. 28); “That which is contrary to the normal state of affairs is not necessarily sinful”
(p. 29). When I disagree with Powell (as I will shortly) and say that the Bible treats same-sex intercourse as
“intrinsically/necessarily sinful/wrong,” I obviously mean that the act is always sinful (wrong, bad) and that
all persons who engage in the act with willful intent and in a sane frame of mind are held culpable for the
sin committed. A person who is coerced is not charged with guilt, and a person who is mentally deranged
has to be treated in a whole separate category.
Now suppose Powell, or someone in Powell’s defense, were to contend—I am not putting out a
complete hypothetical here—that by making exceptions for rape and insanity I have already conceded the
case that the Bible does not regard same-sex intercourse as intrinsically sinful? Powell or someone else
might argue: you see, even Gagnon admits that motivation and intent matter. Powell might even claim:
Gagnon and I both agree that, although same-sex intercourse is not intrinsically sinful, the Bible presents it
as always sinful. What would I say to these things?
First, I mean by “intrinsically sinful” the same thing most people mean when they refer to sex with
one’s mother, sex with a pre-pubescent child, rape, or racial injustice as intrinsically sinful. The act is
always sin, always wrong, never something to be sanctioned by the church, no allowances for exceptions.
The question of who gets charged with the sin is a separate matter. But the act is sin or sinful. Somebody
13
Paul seems to say that (1) all instances of homosexuality are unnatural;
and that (2) the instances of homosexuality known to his Roman readers
are both unnatural and wrong. This still leaves open the possibility of
some instances (unlike what Paul describes) in which homosexual
relations could be regarded only as unnatural but not as wrong. (p. 28)
To be sure, Powell contends that a “heavy burden of proof” rests on those who
argue for exceptions since every reference to homosexual relations is negative.
Still, in the biblical writings themselves, sexual activity between samesex partners is consistently regarded as both unnatural and sinful every
time it is mentioned. In other words, while the possibility of some type of
nonsinful sexual activity between same-sex partners is not ruled out,
such a possibility remains completely hypothetical within the Bible itself.
Thus, a heavy burden of proof rests on those who want to claim that
either sins the sin against others (and his own body) or is sinned against by the sin, but in any case the act is
intrinsically sinful. Evan an insane person who rapes and commits murder has committed sins against
another. The question, if one exists, is only over personal culpability for the sins committed. There remains
a perpetrator who has committed sin and a victim who has been sinned against. If a person holds a gun to a
man’s head and says, “Rape this woman or I’ll kill you both and the woman’s children,” the issue of
culpability becomes complex but a sinful act has still been committed. One might argue that the sinful act
was essentially involuntary—to which I would say, “Yes, an involuntary sinful act.” That is what I mean by
intrinsically sinful. Note that when Powell says, “the instances of homosexuality known to [Paul’s] Roman
readers are both unnatural and wrong” (p. 28), Powell surely knows that Paul’s readers knew about
homosexual rape of boys in the ancient world. Such acts are “wrong,” according to Powell, intrinsically
wrong, not just “unnatural”—sins against the persons exploited.
This brings me to my second point. When Powell says that the Bible presents same-sex intercourse
“as intrinsically unnatural but not as intrinsically sinful” he apparently means by “intrinsically (or
necessarily) sinful” what I mean. He is not thinking of involuntary acts or acts committed by crazy people.
How do I know this? Am I a mind reader? No, I just try to pay close attention to what Powell writes. For
example: When Powell comments on the Levitical prohibitions of same-sex intercourse he states: “But
while we indicated above that what is considered unnatural or non-normative is not necessarily regarded as
wrong, the prohibitions here indicate that, in this case, it is regarded as wrong” (p. 24). So Powell is
asserting (rightly, in my view) that the Levitical prohibitions regard male-male intercourse as necessarily
(i.e., intrinsically) wrong (i.e., sinful). He is not saying that the authors of the Holiness Code believed that a
male who was raped by a man should be put to death (at least, I hope he is not saying that). He is using the
expression necessarily wrong in the same way that I would use it. He means that the authors of the
Holiness Code do not make exceptions or allowances to a normative conviction that male-male intercourse
is sinful and wrong—not for non-idolatrous acts, not for nonexploitative acts, not for any reason (pp. 2324). They are, as Powell puts it, “unqualified and absolute” prohibitions (p. 23). There are no circumstances
in which the behavior could be considered acceptable or in which permission to engage in the behavior
could be granted, presuming willful intent. I leave readers (and Powell) to look up the other uses of the
phrases intrinsically sinful, necessarily sinful, and necessarily wrong on pp. 22, 28, 29, and 35. It will be
apparent that when Powell argues that the Bible does not present same-sex intercourse as intrinsically
wrong, Powell means that, at least hypothetically, there may be exceptional circumstances in which samesex intercourse can be permitted and accepted by the church. As it is, Powell writes in the article that such
exceptions do, in fact, exist—exceptions not merely in cases where the act remains wrong but exceptions
where willful intent is involved and the act is no longer treated as wrong.
In conclusion, my disagreement with Powell is not a mere semantic one. We agree on the meaning of
the phrase intrinsically (or necessarily) sinful. Where we disagree is over the question whether the Bible
presents same-sex intercourse as intrinsically sinful or only as normally so.
14
certain instances of homosexual behavior in the modern world qualify for
such exceptional status. (p. 35)28
Given the conclusions that Powell reaches on pp. 36 and 38-39 (the first two
block quotations cited in I.A. above), Powell apparently thinks that he has met
this “heavy” burden of proof. In Powell’s view, “the Bible regards the instances
of same-sex intercourse to which it refers as shameful and degrading acts,
unacceptable conduct for God’s people” (p. 37; emphasis added)—but only the
instances “to which it refers,” not necessarily to same-sex intercourse per se.
Similarly, in his discussion of the terms malakoi (literally, “soft men”) and
arsenokoitai (literally, “men lying with males”) in the vice list of 1 Cor 6:9-10 he
states:
a general repudiation of homosexual acts [does not] preclude the
possibility of exceptions. . . . the question remains: must all homosexual
acts must be considered sinful just because the acts associated with the
first-century people known as arsenokoitai and malakoi were regarded as
such? (p. 26)
The flipside to Powell’s view that the Bible treats same-sex intercourse as
intrinsically unnatural but not as intrinsically sinful is: “The Bible consistently
presents heterosexual relations as ‘the normal state of affairs’ in keeping with the
original design of God at creation; homosexual relations are regarded as a
departure from God’s design” (p. 32, my emphasis). The second half of that
quotation makes clear that, for Powell, “calling heterosexual unions ‘the normal
state of affairs’ does not just acknowledge heterosexuality as a dominant
biological or cultural phenomenon but identifies heterosexuality as demonstrative
of the original intent of God” (p. 21). In other words, heterosexual relationships
are not just common; they are normative. Yet, Powell hastens to add: “That which
is contrary to the normal state of affairs is not necessarily sinful” (p. 29; cf. pp.
21-22). Even given that caveat, though, the phrase “normal state of affairs” is an
unfortunate expression for what Powell wants to communicate because it does not
convey a strong prescriptive aspect.29
28
Similarly: “the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of homosexual activity in the Bible places a heavy
burden of proof on anyone who wishes to argue for exceptions to what appears to be a unanimous judgment
of scripture” (p. 28).
29
Powell interchanges the terms “normal” and “normative” in his characterization of the creation paradigm
of male-female relations.” For example (all emphases mine): The Bible depicts an “intimate (normally
heterosexual) bond that God willed” (p. 37). “The Bible indicates that God’s intention at creation was for
heterosexual relationships to constitute the ‘normal state of affairs’ in human society” (p. 29). According to
the creation story, “male-female intercourse is the normative expression of sexuality intended by God” (p.
24). Why use the word normal at all? Powell’s explanation for this is only partially satisfactory. He is wary
of normative, apparently because it suggests to some an exception-less quality (p. 21). Still, I think that it
would have been less misleading to readers if Powell had limited himself to the word normative, since
something that is normative can still have exceptions (as Powell himself says). The terms “normally” and
“normal state of affairs” do not connote the prescriptive aspect of something that is “demonstrative of the
original intent of God.” Moreover, why stay with the weak expression “normal state of affairs” even after
concluding from his exegesis of Lev 18:22 and 20:13, Rom 1:24-27, and 1 Cor 6:9 that the Bible gives an
“overwhelmingly negative portrayal of homosexual activity” (p. 28)?
15
C. Powell’s slanting of arguments toward “exceptions”
For someone who is not stumping for a position, who is in dialogue mode, or whose
thinking on the matter is still in process, Powell comes across in his article as
surprisingly confident about key aspects of “the Bible and homosexuality”:
(1) Powell knows that, while the Bible depicts homosexual practice as
“normally contrary to God’s will,” it does not view such behavior as
intrinsically sinful.
(2) Powell knows that no one can “know for certain” whether Paul would
have approved or disapproved of a Christian with (a) a relatively fixed
homosexual orientation entering into (b) a loving and committed
homosexual “life partnership.” Moreover, he knows that “speculation” on
this point, in either direction, cannot be “determinative for the Church’s
deliberations.”
(3) Powell knows that to insist on an absolute ban of all homosexual
relationships is to “fly in the face of Scripture” because: (a) Gen 2:18
allegedly tells us that it is God’s will “for all people to have the
opportunity of sharing life with a partner”; and (b) there are “thousands of
homosexual Christians for whom neither therapy nor celibacy appears
viable.”
To be sure, Powell makes other points in his article that, if accepted, would at least
give the pro-homosex agenda some pause about an unrestricted embrace of homosexual
unions. In addition to statements already quoted we can cite the following examples:
•
•
•
•
“The argument that God creates or intends some people to be homosexual . . .
finds no warrant in Scripture.” Yet Powell then diminishes the significance of this
observation: “The Bible does not, however, automatically identify what is
contrary to the ‘normal state of affairs’ as evil or immoral” (p. 21).
The Levitical prohibitions of male-male intercourse regard such intercourse as
“necessarily . . . wrong” (p. 24). Yet this important observation goes nowhere in
Powell’s larger discussion (see discussion below).
Some are opposed to “requiring” celibacy of homosexuals because, without the
gift of celibacy, “they will yield to temptation and fall into sexual sin.” Powell
dismisses this as “ultimately only a minor concern. Jesus calls all people to
practice self-denial, and Paul promises that self-control is a fruit of the Spirit.”
But Powell immediately deflates the significance of this point by referring to “a
wider concern”: a celibacy requirement forces persons “to devote an inordinate
amount of spiritual energy to managing” lustful passions. Worse still, Powell
says, a celibacy “requirement” makes the lives of homosexuals “displeasing to
God” by denying them “the fullness of life experienced by becoming one with
another” (p. 30; cf. p. 35).
“The simple demonstration that same-sex couples are able to form loving,
committed relationships is not sufficient,” citing the example of caring incestuous
unions. Yet “not sufficient” differs from irrelevant. The ability to form loving,
16
committed relationships is a factor in ascribing legitimacy to homoerotic unions,
when coupled with the consideration of an exclusively homosexual orientation.
The latter is “the pressing point for the Church” (p. 35).
The bulleted points provide a good illustration of how Powell’s rhetoric operates in
his article. Even when he makes a point for the pro-complementarity side, he usually
responds immediately that this point is not decisive for overturning a modified prohomosex position favoring exceptions.30
The bottom line: Readers who accept the validity of the three key assumptions/points
that Powell “knows” would undoubtedly arrive at the position of “exceptions” that
Powell does at the conclusion of his article—or something even more extreme. I myself
would feel compelled to embrace this conclusion if I agreed with the key assumptions.
In view of this, it is hard to cast Powell’s personal view of what the Church “should”
do, found at the end of the article, as a mere parenthetical afterthought or personal aside.
The gist of what is said leading up to this personal view more or less requires this
personal view. Powell, consciously or not, is advocating in favor of thousands of
exceptions to a “normal” or “normative” biblical stance against homosexual activity.
II. What Powell Claims the Church
Would Not Be Doing in Granting Exceptions
Powell begins the last section of his article by “clarifying what the Church would not
be doing” if it sanctioned “some relationships between some homosexual persons who
meet certain criteria defined by the Church (for instance, public commitment to a
lifelong, monogamous union)” (p. 36). Given the tilt of the presentation leading up to this
point, as well as the personal opinion favoring exceptions that soon follows, this part of
Powell’s article comes across as an attempt at reassuring the pro-complementarity side
that things will not be so bad if the ELCA decides to make “allowances.” Powell makes
four points, all of which, I believe, are incorrect.
A. Not endorsing homosexual behavior?
Powell claims:
The Church would not be endorsing homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle that
Christians may or may not engage in as they wish. The Church could continue to
respect the biblical perspective that regards homosexuality as a departure from
God’s original design and that presents homosexual behavior as activity that is
normally contrary to God’s will. It is not necessary for the Church to question
such propositions to recognize that certain circumstances may justify exceptions
to the usual policy. (p. 36; my emphases)
30
Powell’s arguments sometimes move in the opposite direction; that is, the follows a point in favor of
affirming homosexual unions with a point that makes such affirmation difficult. But this is not the
dominant trend of the article. Moreover, at no time does he raise an argument for the traditional position
that precludes exceptions.
17
For the moment we will leave aside the claim that a policy of exceptions would
“continue to respect the biblical perspective”—an assurance that is predicated on the
erroneous view that the Bible regards same-sex intercourse only as normally sinful, but
not as intrinsically so. If the church adopts the view that homosexual relations are not
contrary to God’s will in certain circumstances, then how would the church not be
“endorsing” homosexual relations “as an alternative lifestyle” for some? To add the
qualifier “that Christians may or may not engage in as they wish” is meaningless since
the church does not even endorse every form of heterosexual behavior. In what sense,
then, would the biblical perspective on same-sex intercourse be treated as functionally
different from that regarding heterosexual practice? I suppose that self-professed
bisexuals could be asked to stay with opposite-sex unions but, apart from that
consideration—which at any rate is utterly unrealistic—expectations for homosexual and
heterosexual unions would be the same. If some sexually intimate partnerships fulfill the
biblical provision of enabling two to “become one,” as Powell thinks, then why shouldn’t
the church fully endorse such partnerships? If it is “not good” for a person to be without a
lifetime sex partner and a person of the same sex can qualify as such, then a homoerotic
lifetime partnership must be at least a second-order “good”—hence, a valid “alternative
lifestyle.”
The term exceptions would become meaningless. The “usual policy” of forbidding
homosexual behavior would apply only to those not particularly “oriented” toward
violating it. It would not apply to any persons who professed a predominant homosexual
orientation, claimed that they found an unpartnered existence unbearable, and were
willing to commit publicly to “a lifelong monogamous union.” Such persons would not
be required to confess their sexual relationship as sin, nor would they desist from further
participation in it (i.e., repent).
A practical problem here, probably unsolvable, is: How would the church know
when a given individual has a fixed and unalterable, “exclusive” orientation? As regards
an allegedly fixed and unalterable orientation, the overwhelming majority of
homosexuals, even so-called exclusive homosexuals, make at least one shift along the
Kinsey spectrum of 0 (exclusively heterosexual) to 6 (exclusively homosexual) at some
point during the course of life (e.g., from exclusively homosexual [6] to predominantly
homosexual [5] or to more homosexual than heterosexual [4]). This can happen,
sometimes quite unexpectedly, through changing experiences and encounters at any time
in one’s life, with or without therapeutic intervention. It is impossible for any selfidentified homosexual, to say nothing of the church, to know in advance of the final
moment preceding death whether his or her sexual “orientation”—which is nothing more
than a term for the directedness of one’s sexual desire at a given moment in life—is fixed
and unalterable. Not even Powell is recommending an ecclesiastically mandated period
of therapeutic intervention before the church makes such assumptions—which
intervention would still not guarantee that the orientation would never shift in the
future.31
And what would count as an exclusive orientation toward members of the same sex?
A little over a year ago I met a homosexual minister-scholar who had been married for
twenty years and had several children from the marriage. With his wife’s “blessing” he
divorced her and moved in with a homosexual lover. I asked him: “During all the time of
31
B&HP, 416-29.
18
courtship and marriage did you ever feel the slightest sexual attraction for your wife?” He
responded: “Yes, I felt some sexual attraction. But as with most gays, it was like playing
tennis left-handed when one is really right-handed.” Does that count as an exclusive
orientation? He had experienced a limited amount of heterosexual attraction but
ultimately felt dissatisfied with his sexual life. He and his wife are still close today:
would that count as a lifetime sex partner? There are no clear answers to questions like
these, not even for those experiencing homoerotic impulses. Moreover, the church would
have nothing to go on beside the self-testimony of people who feel some level of
attraction for the same sex, which testimony can be easily manipulated to achieve the
desired ends. Any attempt at limiting approval of homosexual unions to homosexuals
with a relatively fixed and exclusive homosexual orientation would be an exercise in utter
futility.
Another practical problem is Powell’s example of the church sanctioning
homosexual relationships with a “public commitment to a lifelong, monogamous union.”
Unofficial blessing ceremonies for homosexuals today normally do not involve such a
precise commitment. Indeed, it would be absurd for the church to require it, given that
data to date suggests that no more than 5% of homosexual unions will turn out to be both
lifelong and monogamous—unless, of course, the union is entered into late in life or one
of the partners dies prematurely because of non-natural causes such as AIDS. To ask for a
“public commitment to a lifelong, monogamous union” from a homosexual relationship
that almost certainly will not be both is to make a mockery of the terms of the
commitment. To be sure, heterosexual unions are themselves far from perfect. Yet even
in American society today half of heterosexual marriages do not end in divorce.
According to the 1992 National Health and Social Life Survey (Laumann et al.), 75% of
all men and 85% of all women have never had an extramarital affair.
At most, given the statistics for homosexual unions to date, the church might
realistically ask for a ten-year monogamous commitment on the part of lesbians or a
twenty-year semi-monogamous commitment on the part of male homosexuals (say, with
less than five occasional outside partners). Even with these significantly lowered
expectations, a “success rate” of no higher than 25% could be anticipated. Probably a
better course of action would be to ask for a public commitment to “do the best you can”
in keeping the relationship long-term (as opposed to lifelong) with the fewest outside
partners possible. Or, because such a charge would be embarrassingly honest, the church
could simply ask for a commitment of some sort between the two parties. A significant
culprit for the non-lifelong and/or non-monogamous character of nearly all homosexual
unions is the discomplementarity of a male-male or female-female union. Male-female
differences contribute markedly to the stability of sexual unions, particularly in
moderating the unhealthy excesses of each sex (see section IV. below).
Moreover, it is politically naïve not to recognize that even a very limited
acceptance of some homosexual unions would merely serve as a transitional stage to full
acceptance. No special gift in clairvoyance is needed to forecast the consequences. The
difference between sanctioning no homosexual unions and sanctioning a small number is
like the difference between sanctioning no adulterous relationships and sanctioning a
few; or sanctioning no adult incestuous unions and sanctioning a few; or rejecting all sex
with prepubescent children and allowing it in certain well-defined circumstances. It is
analogous to the difference between bolting all doors and windows to prevent a thief
19
from entering and leaving one window open for a breath of fresh air. To give approval to
even a small minority of cases is to set in motion the gradual erosion of ecclesiastical
resistance to the conduct, eventually eliminating altogether the social stigma, shame, and
revulsion attached to it.32
The homosex lobby in church and society has been about nothing if not about
transition—not in their own views but in manipulating the views of society.33 The aim of
homosex-advocacy groups is to move people from one transitional phase to the next by
means of guilt-producing claims of victimization, injustice, and intolerance.34 They
solidify their gains each step of the way by incremental coercion. In the secular sphere we
see the homosexual agenda at work in the movement from propaganda that falsely places
“sexual orientation” on a par with race and gender, to hate-crime legislation (starting with
32
There is a nice discussion of this point already in Plato’s Laws 838A-C (quoted in B&HP, 127-28).
Cf. Alan Sears and Craig Osten, The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principle Threat to Religious
Freedom Today (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2003).
34
This is not to deny the fact that actual cases of victimization do occur; nor is it a matter of being
unsympathetic. Rather, it is to say that such instances are often exaggerated in magnitude and number and
always used politically by homosexual activists to advance an agenda well beyond the problem at hand.
The end result is at once a loss of societal freedoms (speech, press, association) and sexual restraint. And
for what? There are already laws on the books to cover genuine cases of violence and harassment.
Furthermore, societal approval of homosexual behavior will lead to a greater level of victimization, insofar
as it promotes behavior that leads to a disproportionately high rate of sexually transmitted disease, domestic
violence, sadomasochism, and even “pick-up murders.” And critics of homosexual behavior, especially
those who have participated in political efforts to roll back a coercive homosexual agenda or who have
testified to transformation out of a homosexual lifestyle, have become the targets of death threats, drive-by
shooting into their homes, arson, and other forms of harassment. The situation is only going to get worse.
On Nov. 19, 2002, Mary Stachowicz, a 51-year-old wife, mother of four, and devout Catholic, was
murdered by a 19-year-old homosexual man when she asked him, “Why do you [have sex with] boys
instead of girls?” In a fit of rage, Nicholas Gutierrez punched, kicked, stabbed, and strangled Mrs.
Stachowicz; then stuffed her body into a crawl space under the floor of his apartment, where it remained for
two days until he confessed to police. Not surprisingly, the news outlets gave this story very little
attention—the same course of action that they followed in 1999 when 13-year-old Jesse Durkhising was
sodomized and killed by a sadomasochistic homosexual couple.
An even greater threat to the safety of those who regard homosexual behavior as sin is the co-opting
of federal and state government authority and resources to mandate affirmation of homosexual behavior
and to criminalize opposition to it. In the corporate world, too, workers have been fired for expressing their
disagreement with a pro-homosex agenda. It takes only one or two Orwellian cases from “Fortune 500”
companies to spread fear to the workplace nationally. In 1998 Annie Coffey-Montes, a New York Bell
Atlantic employee for 20 years, was fired for attempting to remove herself from the e-mail list of GLOBE
(Gay and Lesbians of Bell Atlantic), which advertised “gay pride” parades, “coming out” parties, and
homosexual dances. After a year of petitioning to her supervisor to have her name removed, she responded
to one GLOBE e-mail with: “Please take me off this email. I find it morally offensive. God bless you.” She
ended by citing Romans 1:27. Coffey-Montes was then fired for “creating a hostile work environment.”
She appealed to the New York State Department of Health. The Department of Health dropped the case
against New York Bell even though New York Bell failed to show for all three hearings. The decision to
drop the case was not all that surprising, considering that Coffey-Montes’ caseworker had pro-homosex
posters on her office wall. In October 2002, Rolf Szabo, a 23-year employee of The Eastman Kodak Co.,
was fired when he responded to an e-mail requiring supervisors to promote a “Coming Out Day” for gay,
lesbian, bisexual, and transgender employees with the following: “Please do not send this type of
information to me anymore, as I find it disgusting and offensive. Thank you.” So we have reached a point
where even to refer to pro-homosex e-mail bombardments in the workplace as offensive is to risk
termination. Indeed, employees are now being forced to affirm homosexual behavior. Wanting to be left
alone to do one’s job is not good enough.
33
20
violent acts and transitioning to speech that refers to homosexual behavior as sinful), to
mandatory pro-homosex indoctrination in schools and businesses, to employment nondiscrimination and affirmative action legislation (phased in first in the secular business
sector and then against religious organizations), to “coming out” celebrations (first
permitted, then required in the workplace and in schools), to domestic partner benefits,
and finally to full-blown marriage. All one need do is look at recent developments in the
Scandinavian countries, in Canada, and in the United States (particularly California,
Vermont, and Massachusetts) to see the writing on the wall. Or, on the ecclesiastical
scene, look at what has happened to the United Church of Christ at the national level.
Powell’s analysis, if embraced, provides a way station that will inevitably lead to the
coerced celebration and full normalization of homosexual behavior in the church—all to
the detriment of our children.
B. Not redefining marriage?
Powell’s second claim regarding what the church would not be doing in granting
exceptions fares no better than the first:
The Church would not be redefining marriage as a partnership that may be
constituted by same-sex couples as well as by heterosexual ones. The Church
could continue to affirm its traditional understanding of marriage and recognize
certain homosexual relationships as something other than marriage—as
relationships that have value in their own right but that do not constitute actual
marriages. (p. 36)
Note Powell’s formulation: “as something other than marriage.” What is this
something other than marriage? A definition would be in order but Powell does not stop
to offer the reader one that distinguishes this “something other than marriage” from
marriage. Instead, what one finds elsewhere in Powell’s article is an attempt at describing
the essence of what heterosexual marriage offers, which Powell in turn thinks should be
made available to some homosexuals in a homoerotic relationship.35 So Powell is really
setting up a quasi-marriage of sorts, whether he admits it or not. This comes across
clearly in the fact that Powell, when making his case, repeatedly alludes to Gen 2:1824—the key marriage story in the Bible. He refers to “the basic human yearning for an
intimate, lifelong relationship through which two persons may be said to ‘become one’
(Gen. 2:21-24)” (p. 30); and declares, “God does not want homosexual persons (or
anyone else) to have to live alone, denied the opportunity of ‘becoming one’ with a lifepartner through an intimate bond of love and devotion” (p. 37).36 One cannot have it both
ways: appealing to the Bible’s key marriage text to say that what heterosexuals have in
marriage should be made available to some homosexual relationships, while at the same
35
Cf. p. 30: “When a person is told, ‘You must remain celibate,’ he or she is not simply being told, ‘You
cannot have sex with anyone.’ The requirement implies much more than that. It implies, ‘You cannot have
a spouse–a lifetime partner with whom to share your life and “become one.”’ It implies, ‘You cannot
experience the joys of marriage and all the attendant blessings of married life.’ It may even imply, ‘You
cannot know the thrill of romance and the joy of romantic love.’”
36
Cf. p. 21: “sex fosters intimacy, allowing two people to ‘become one’ in a profound and mysterious
way.”
21
time denying that the Church would be redefining marriage to include same-sex
couples.37
Powell also gets trapped in a “catch 22.” For not to call these sanctioned homoerotic
unions marriages, and yet to bless them, is to institutionalize sex outside of marriage.
From the vantage point of Jesus and the early church, this is to sanction sin. And yet to
call them marriages is to fundamentally transform marriage as something other than a
one-flesh re-merger of complementary sexual others.
In addition, most homosexual believers who seek a blessing ceremony from the
church publicly proclaim that they interpret the relationship as a marriage. They often
draw on marriage imagery, liturgy, and ritual in these ceremonies, even when the intent is
to radically revamp marriage as an institution. The secular culture is also pushing in the
direction of defining homosexual unions as marriages, or at least the institutional
equivalent, with all the rights and benefits awarded married couples (medical benefits,
adoption, etc.). In such a context it is untenable to argue that the church would not be redefining marriage by sanctioning some homosexual relationships.
C. Not condoning certain sex acts?
The third assurance that Powell gives is: “The Church would not be endorsing or
even condoning any specific sex acts that might be performed by same-sex couples” (p.
36). I think that the distinction will be lost on most people. If the church is going to
sanction some relationships between some homosexual persons, it will inevitably have to
turn a blind eye to the practices that typify homosexual relationships. What is the church
going to say? We will bless this male homosexual union but we do not want you to ever
penetrate your partner? The church is not going to say that and, in any case, most male
homosexuals are not going to stop doing it. Furthermore, when the overwhelming
majority of all homosexual relationships that are sanctioned year after year by the church
turn out not to be both lifelong and monogamous, ecclesiastical claims to valuing
permanence and monogamy among sexual unions will surely ring hollow.
D. Not rejecting celibacy or therapy as “first options”?
The fourth assurance is perhaps the most far-fetched of all. Powell claims: “The
Church would not be rejecting or discrediting the views or efforts of those who encourage
celibacy or therapy as ‘first-options’ for gay and lesbian persons.” Nor would it be
rejecting the views of homosexual activists who wanted to “celebrate homosexual
partnerships with the same enthusiasm that attends heterosexual marriages. . . . The
Church could acknowledge such diversity without any official ruling as to who is right
and who is wrong” (p. 37).
37
Curiously, Powell truncates the full phrase in Gen 2:24, writing “become one” rather than “become one
flesh.” Is this a tacit admission on Powell’s part that two homosexuals committed to a lifelong
monogamous union can never become “one flesh”? Powell has communicated to me that it was just an
oversight. But it may be a telling one since it points to the disconnection between the problem as stated in
Gen 2:18 (it is good for the human not to be alone) and his reading of the solution in Gen 2:21-24. For Gen
2:24 is the only sexual solution given to the problem enunciated in 2:18 and this solution clearly
presupposes a man and woman, involves a marriage, and effects a “one flesh” bond. Powell starts with the
problem enunciated in 2:18, rightly sees the solution in 2:24 but alters the solution so that it does not
necessarily presuppose two complementary sexual others and does not involve a marriage. Powell wants to
have his cake and eat it too; in this case, he cannot.
22
The homosexual lobby in the church is not renowned for its tolerance of people who
regard homoerotic impulses as sinful or just undesirable. With the church’s blessing upon
at least some homosexual unions, homosexual activists will smell blood in the water and
will go after any pastors or denominational officials who dare to suggest celibacy and
therapy for homosexuals. It will not be long before:
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
Candidates for ordination who dare to recommend therapy or celibacy for
homosexuals, even if only as a “first option,” will be denied ordination.
Pastors who declare it from the pulpits will be brought up on charges of
discrimination, homophobia, intolerance, and hate.
Denominational seminaries, already largely in the grip of the pro-homosex
agenda, will officially refuse to hire or tenure professors who give the slightest
indication of not signing on to that agenda. Christian colleges and seminaries that
cannot demonstrate affirmative action hiring practices for self-professed gays and
lesbians will risk losing accreditation, federal loans, and tax-exempt status.
From day one on, seminary students will be thoroughly indoctrinated about the
broad meaning of sexual orientation harassment and will learn to be silent about
their reservations or face dismissal.
Denominational structures will become further radicalized to hard-left positions,
not just in the area of sexuality but also as regards Christology and the authority
of Scripture (or lack thereof) in the life of the church.
Denominational publishing houses, already providing inadequate representation
of the pro-comp position, will surely cease publishing anything that is less than a
full endorsement of “gay rights” in all its abrasive manifestations.
When the church capitulates on this issue, society at large will become more
draconian in ferreting out alleged “homophobia,” even to the point of
implementing criminal prosecution for “hate speech” and “discrimination,”
broadly interpreted.
The people that I am most concerned about are thirty-year olds and under, especially
our children. They will be the recipients of massive indoctrination and intimidation. If
they decide to maintain a scriptural position, they will be treated as the moral equivalent
of racists. In addition, with ecclesiastical incentives in place for “exploring” one’s
“sexual orientation,” the numbers of those who develop homoerotic impulses and identify
as homosexual will increase. Along with that increase will come disproportionately high,
negative side effects to health, relational stability and monogamy, and gender identity
formation.38
I meet many persons on the “pro-comp” side of the sexuality debate who are already
tired of all the talk about sex and tired of the intimidation and name-calling. If they cave
in to the pro-homosex agenda, all I can say to them is: You haven’t seen anything yet.
And our children will suffer far more if we put our head in the sand and ask to be left
alone.
38
For the effect of macrocultural sanctions on the incidence of homosexual orientation, practice, and selfidentification, see B&HP, 413-18.
23
III. Interpretative Issues:
Core Values, Structural Complementarity, and Burden of Proof
A. On core values
At the start of his essay Powell lists five principles for interpretation of Scripture that
constitute “a Lutheran approach” (p. 20). I have no quarrel with any of these principles in
principle. In fact, none of them can be characterized as creating a peculiarly “Lutheran
approach” (as Powell himself seems to admit). Where we differ is over the application of
these principles.
An example of this is his application of his own fourth principle: Some things in
Scripture are more important than others. That he could suggest reinterpretation of
Sabbath law by Jesus and the early church as a comparable analogue to the issue of
homosexual practice (pp. 38-39) shows just how much he underestimates the importance
Scripture attaches to the male-female prerequisite for valid sexual unions. Certainly Paul
did not regard Sabbath and sex as comparable issues. Paul viewed all days as alike (Rom
14:5-6) while staunchly upholding a series of category sex proscriptions (e.g., on incest,
same-sex intercourse, adultery, prostitution, fornication).39 Jesus too put the issue of sex
on an entirely different plane from particular interpretations of what it meant to rest on
the Sabbath. Jesus intensified God’s ethical demand in the area of human sexuality even
as he aggressively reached out to lost sexual sinners. To see this one need only compare
Jesus’ handling of Sabbath law with his views on adultery of the heart and on divorce and
remarriage: the wrong that one does in the sexual sphere of life, if not repented of, can
get one’s “whole body” thrown into hell (Matt 5:27-32).
The closer a position gets to being a core value in Scripture the greater the burden of
proof becomes for those who seek to modify it substantially or overturn it. The evidence
adduced must be so strong and unambiguous that it makes the strong and unambiguous
witness of Scripture pale by comparison. Otherwise Scripture ceases to have any
meaningful authority in the life of the church. How does one determine proximity to a
core value? Four related elements stand out.
(1) The more pervasively and consistently a particular position is upheld across the
landscape of the canon—at least implicitly and especially across the two
Testaments—the greater the claim is to being a core value and the higher the
burden of proof becomes.
(2) The more strongly biblical authors hold to a particular position—that is, the more
serious a moral issue it was to them, as measured by the intensity of the language
employed to describe violators and the stakes or penalties assigned—the greater
the claim is to being a core value and the higher the burden of proof becomes.
39
See, for example: 1 Thess 4:2-8; 1 Corinthians 5-7; 2 Cor 12:21; Gal 5:19-21; Rom 1:24-27; 6:19; 13:13;
Col 3:5-10; Eph 4:17-19; 5:3-6; 1 Tim 1:9-11. In Paul’s view, how one acts sexually can be a matter of life
or death. This was true for the incestuous man in 1 Corinthians 5. His behavior put him at risk for being
excluded from the kingdom of God and so required the extreme measure of temporary exclusion from the
life of the community in order to bring him to his senses (5:5, 9-11; 6:9-10). That incident, in turn, led Paul
to insist to the Corinthians that sex is not like food: what one does with the body sexually can have eternal
repercussions (6:12-20).
24
(3) The more absolutely biblical authors maintained a particular view—that is, the
more unlikely it was that they would have permitted any exceptions—the greater
the claim is to being a core value and the higher the burden of proof becomes.
(4) The more the authors of Scripture maintain a position in opposition to broader
cultural trends—and thus the greater likelihood that they were not uncritically
imbibing from the conventional cultural well—the greater the claim is to being a
core value and the higher the burden of proof becomes.
When these four elements all exist for a given position, the bar for deviating from
this position in contemporary practice has to be set extraordinarily high. As it happens, all
four elements are in place for the biblical proscription of homosexual practice. This
constellation justifies the application of the label core value or foundational value,
certainly within the sphere of sexual ethics, to the principle that complementary sexual
others, male and female, are an essential prerequisite for legitimate sexual relationships.40
To be sure, it is not the sole and sufficient prerequisite—other prerequisites are needed
too (e.g., that the relationship be between humans and non-incestuous, with a
commitment to a lifelong and monogamous union—in that order); but it is a necessary
one, an essential starting point for all other sex rules. As regards consensual sexual
relationships, probably only the intra-human (non-bestial) aspect was regarded as more
significant by biblical authors. Sex between a man and his mother would be a comparable
offense, slightly or slightly less offensive depending on the author.41 To allow for
40
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a value in this sense refers to “something (as a principle
or quality) intrinsically valuable or desirable” and core to “a basic, essential, or enduring part.”
41
There are at least four arguments that one can employ here to demonstrate this point. For example: (1)
Both ancient Israel and early Judaism exhibited extreme repugnance for same-sex intercourse. Such
repugnance, of course, is conveyed in the Levitical proscriptions, which specifically tag man-male
intercourse as a to’evah (an abomination; something particularly abhorrent, detestable, loathsome,
repugnant, disgusting). Abhorrence for same-sex intercourse per se also factors prominently in three
important “kitchen sink stories” of massive human depravity (Ham, Sodom, the Levite at Gibeah) and in
the references to the qedeshim (male cult prostitutes) in Deuteronomic law and in the Deuteronomistic
History (Joshua through 2 Kings; here too labeled a to’evah). The fact that Ezekiel could describe it only by
metonymy in 16:50 and 18:12 (as to’evah) also points in this direction, as does the absence of a specific
recorded case of same-sex intercourse in early Judaism (from the Second Temple period on) prior to ca. A.D
300. Regarding the possibility of Jews engaging in this abhorrent behavior, a text from the rabbinic Tosefta
comments simply: “Israel is not suspected” (Qiddushin 5:10). Jews in the Greco-Roman period regarded
man-male intercourse as the prime example, or at least one of the top examples, of Gentile impiety (e.g.,
Sibylline Oracles 3; Letter of Aristeas 152). In a lengthy description of sex laws, Philo (ca. 10 B.C.-A.D. 45)
characterizes man-male intercourse as a “much greater evil than that which was mentioned [above],”
referring minimally to sex with a menstruous and barren women and possibly as well to the preceding
discussion of adultery and incest (Special Laws 3.7-42; though cf. 3.14: “What form of unholiness could be
more impious than [marrying one’s mother]?”). Philo follows his discussion of man-male intercourse with
one about bestiality (3.43-50), introduced with the words alla gar (literally, “but really, certainly”), whose
sense may be correctly captured in F. Colson’s translation for the Loeb Classical Library edition: “Even
worse than this,” i.e., even worse than man-male intercourse). When Josephus (ca. A.D. 37-100) discusses
marriage laws, his very first point, before he even mentions incest and adultery, is: “The Law recognizes
only intercourse according to nature, that which is with a woman. . . . That of males with males it abhors
and, if anyone attempts it, death is the penalty” (Against Apion 2.199-200). At another place, though, he
singles out sexual intercourse with one’s mother as “the greatest evil” before citing (in no particular order
of priority) other forms of incest, sex with a menstruous woman, bestiality, and male-male intercourse
(Jewish Antiquities 3.274-75). (2) The marriage text in Gen 2:24 marks as the one essential prerequisite of a
25
exceptions to the prohibition of homosexual unions is, obviously, to assert that some
considerations are more important than male-female complementarity; for example, the
intensity of one’s yearning for a mate, one’s peculiar “orientation,” the level of
commitment, the monogamous quality, and/or the longevity of the relationship. However,
that is to get matters backwards from a biblical perspective.
B. On the incest analogy and structural complementarity
The example of incest will help to make the point about the centrality of what I call
“structural complementarity.” Most would argue that a lifelong commitment is less
important to a sexual union than the principle that sex be between people who are not,
apart from a sexual union, already “the flesh of one’s flesh” (Lev 18:6). An incestuous
union characterized by a lifelong and monogamous commitment is not measurably
improved. In fact, the goal is to end an incestuous union, not to prolong it—no matter
how caring and committed the union is. So too with a homosexual union. The Bible’s
prohibition of incest, and particularly sex with one’s mother, is by far the best analogue
to the Bible’s prohibition of same-sex intercourse. Both acts are:
(1) Regarded with similar revulsion;
(2) Capable of being conducted as an adult, consensual, long-term, and
monogamous relationship;
(3) Wrong partly because they involve two people who are too much alike
(incest on the level of blood relations, homosexual behavior on the level
of sex or gender);
(4) Wrong partly because they are associated with a disproportionately high
incidence of negative side effects.42
There is an important interrelationship between points (3) and (4) on the matter of
why the behavior is wrong. The argument from negative side effects (4) is easier to
document in scientifically measurable ways than the argument from structural
incompatibility (3). Yet, while these negative side effects occur at a disproportionately
high rate, they do not affect all participants in all circumstances. They are, again, side
effects. Not surprisingly, pro-homosex advocates counter that some homosexual unions
married union, beyond its intra-human character, that it involve a man and a woman. Incest itself must be
ruled out of bounds on the basis of post-Fall developments. Same-sex intercourse is precluded already prior
to the Fall. (3) The Old Testament makes limited accommodations to monogamy and longevity, and in the
patriarchal period some relationships existed that were subsequently banned by Levitical legislation as
incestuous. Yet the Old Testament makes no exceptions for same-sex intercourse. (4) In Rom 1:24-27 Paul
highlights same-sex intercourse, alongside of idolatry, as “exhibit A” for egregious human suppression of
the truth about God in creation. This, plus the charged terms with which Paul describes same-sex
intercourse in 1:24-27, confirm that Paul’s views on same-sex intercourse were as strong as those held by
Jews generally of the period. That Paul employs the discussion in 1:18-32 to ensnare the righteous Jew in
2:1-3:8 in no way detracts from Paul’s own vigorously negative assessment of same-sex intercourse (for
which point see B&HP, 277-84).
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They each generate their own set of negative side effects. Incest produces higher rates of procreative
abnormalities and tends toward intergenerational (i.e., parent-child) sex. Homoerotic behavior is
characterized by disproportionately high rates of sexually transmitted disease, mental health issues, high
numbers of sex partners, noncommittal and short-term relationships, intergenerational sex, grotesque sexual
practices, and extreme forms of gender identity disorder.
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do appear to be healthy, monogamous, and lifelong. Of course, a countercounterargument would be: Yes, but if society approves the rule for the sake of the
exception, it will invariably do more harm than good for the greatest number. However,
there is a deeper problem with incestuous and homoerotic unions. The argument from too
much structural sameness (3), while more intuitive and less verifiable than the argument
from negative side effects (4), discloses the real problem with these two behaviors. For a
man to have sex with his mother, for example, is a grotesque wrong no matter how ‘well’
it is done. It is structurally wrong and, as such, all other factors, including issues of loving
intent and commitment, are secondary.
Powell’s article does not fully grapple with the issue of gross structural incongruity
for homoerotic unions. For example, early in his article Powell affirms that “the gift of
sexuality” is, in the Bible’s perspective, about “at least” three things: (1) procreation
(normally); (2) fostering a durable bond of intimacy; and (3) pleasure (p. 21). Now, if that
were all sex was about, perhaps a case for some forms of same-sex intercourse might be
possible, though only with the qualification “normally” for procreation.43 Then, too,
under these parameters, one could also make a case for some forms of adult incest,
bestiality, pederasty, and various plural marriage arrangements. It is true that Powell says
“at least” three things so he is not precluding additional elements. Nevertheless, given the
number of prohibited sexual behaviors that are not excluded by Powell’s “biblical
overview of sexuality,” it would seem that Powell has an obligation to formulate an
additional descriptive element or two that could plug this gaping hole. In fact, it is
precisely this additional factor that precludes any case for exceptions to the Bible’s
prohibition of same-sex intercourse.
A sexual relationship is about much more than intimacy in the context of lifelong
commitment.44 It is about merging (interlocking, fusing) with another who is structurally
complementary (congruous, compatible), “becoming one flesh” through a sexual
relationship, and learning to integrate holistically with another who is neither too much
like oneself, nor too much unlike on a structural level. Intimacy with one’s parent, child,
circle of close fellow believers, or even beloved pet is a wonderful thing. Adding sex to
the mix, however, changes completely the dynamics of the relationship. Intimacy turns
into a desire to merge sexually. Explaining why introducing sex into such intimate
relationships is wrong is not easy to do; it requires a certain intuitive and instinctive
sense. We are arriving here at a “prime number” of human sexuality, a reality not easily
“divisible” into logical, measurable, or scientific analysis.
Powell does cite the incest analogy to show that the capacity of some same-sex
unions for love and commitment “is not sufficient” for meeting a “heavy burden of
proof” for exceptions to the biblical norm. Yet he then goes on to say that the relevance
of the incest analogy is limited significantly by the fact that
43
I say perhaps because it depends on how one places the qualifier normally, whether with a class-based
category or an individual-based category. If the former, then homosexuals as a class would not pass the test
since two homosexuals can never procreate (let alone not normally). Homosexual unions are structurally
incapable of producing offspring that is solely the genetic product of the union. By contrast, the capacity to
procreate is structurally imbedded in heterosexual unions.
44
Given the continuous refrain in Powell’s article concerning the value of an “intimate life partner(ship),”
it is evident that by far the most important of these three aspects of human sexuality for Powell—
procreation, fostering a durable bond of intimacy, pleasure—is the second. See especially pp. 30, 35-38;
also pp. 19, 21-22, 31-32, 34.
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people involved in incestuous relationships do not usually maintain that they are so
incest-oriented that a meaningful nonincestuous sexual relationship would be
impossible for them. The pressing point for the Church with regard to
homosexuality occurs over this issue. (p. 35)
The flaw in this observation, however, is that “sexual orientation” does not take
precedence over the issue of too much structural sameness. Even apart from the fact that
homosexual acts are often—perhaps most often—conducted by people who are not
“exclusive” homosexuals (category 6 in Kinsey’s terms), would Powell or anyone else
want to sanction a man-mother union even if there were an “orientation” involved?
Obviously not. It’s just too weird.
If issues of commitment, monogamy, and longevity take a back seat to the core value
of non-incestuous unions, then the question of whether “yearning for a life-partner” can
be satisfied through some other means is quite beside the point. For there are no
guarantees that an individual engaged in incest will find another life-partner. Regardless
of the person’s prospects for some other relationship, incest is too grave an offense to be
warranted under any circumstances. It transcends all matters pertaining to life-partners.
This is even more true of same-sex intercourse. Whether or not the individual develops
an attraction later in life for members of the opposite sex—something that no one can
predict in advance—is a secondary concern in relation to the self-idolatry of attraction to
one’s own sex.45
C. On the burden of proof
This leads us to another flaw in Powell’s approach. Any overturning or even
significant modification of a biblical value must directly address the reasons for the
Bible’s position. For example, it is not enough to prove that the sole expression of
homosexuality in antiquity was an inherently exploitative form (pederasty or cult
prostitution) or that the knowledge of an entrenched, innate, and exclusive homosexual
orientation was inaccessible to the ancient mind—two claims that, at any rate, are false.
One must also prove that the Bible condemned homosexual practice primarily on the
grounds of the exploitative mismatch created by pederasty or on the grounds that all
participants were capable of experiencing sexual satisfaction with the opposite-sex.
Otherwise, even if these claims were valid (and they are not), they would still have little
relevance for ascertaining the deficiencies in the Bible’s reasons for condemning
homosexual behavior.
As noted early, Powell contends that anyone who wants to argue for exceptions to
“what appears to be a unanimous judgment of scripture” has to meet a “heavy burden of
proof” (pp. 28, 35). Unfortunately, Powell then proceeds at points to argue as if such
45
It is interesting that in this context Powell refers only to a homosexual bond “that might seem unnatural
and even ‘degrading’ to traditional Christians but is nevertheless satisfying to the couple themselves” (p.
35; emphasis added). Elsewhere Powell admits that the Scripture treats same-sex intercourse as
“intrinsically unnatural.” Yet here he refers to it as only “seeming unnatural” to “traditional Christians.”
Which is it? And is it not more apropos to connect the verb “seem” to the perception of homosexuals that
their bond is “satisfying”? It “seems” to them to be a satisfying bond but Scripture is clear that it is not
ultimately satisfying, for it does not provoke the participants to reach beyond their own sexual identities to
a sexual other. It does not result in a re-merger of two complementary sexual halves.
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were not the case. He believes that “we cannot know for certain what Paul would have
prescribed for the redeemed Christian who continues to have homosexual impulses
[and]46 to engage in homosexual activity that is neither promiscuous nor exploitative”;
nor can “speculation” over what Paul “might have thought” be “determinative for the
Church’s deliberations” (p. 31). Wait a minute: When does “a heavy burden of proof on
anyone who wishes to argue for exceptions” kick in, if not here? Doesn’t Powell’s
burden-of-proof criterion require him to assume that Paul would not have made any
exceptions for “the redeemed Christian who continues to have homosexual impulses
[and] to engage in [nonexploitative] homosexual activity”—unless powerful and
unambiguous historical evidence to the contrary can be adduced? To meet the “heavy
burden of proof,” Powell would have to demonstrate, among other things, that:
(1) Paul almost certainly could not have been aware of theories in the ancient world
regarding a congenital basis for at least some forms of homoerotic attraction.
(2) Paul did not think sin could be associated with entrenched and exclusive innate
desires.
(3) Paul’s primary reason for viewing same-sex intercourse as an egregious wrong
had to do with an assumption about homoerotic desire as voluntary and
nonexclusive, and homosexual relationships as inevitably exploitative, rather than
with any notion about structural incongruity.
As it is, Powell never establishes a single one of these points. Indeed, the historical
and literary contexts for Paul’s remarks about homosexual behavior do not permit any of
these points to be established. Therefore, his position on exceptions, expressed at the end
of the article, does not meet the “heavy burden of proof” that he himself sets up for all
who contend for exceptions.
A note to readers: The rest of this article, sections IV-VII can be read in: Christian
Sexuality: Papers from the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau Conference (ed. Russell
Saltzman; Minneapolis: Kirk House), 100-50 (scheduled for publication in Dec. 2003).
The following is a table of contents for the print version:
Introduction……………………………………………………………………………100
Why this essay?………………………………………………………100
Do readers of this article have to be Lutheran
or be familiar with Powell’s work?………………………… ..102
I. Does Powell Advocate Exceptions? (Summary)……………………………………..103
II. What the Church Would Be Doing in Granting Exceptions (Summary)……………104
III. Interpretive Issues: Core Values, Structural Complementarity, and
the Burden of Proof (Summary)………………………………………………..105
46
See n. 22.
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IV. The Male-Female Prerequisite in the Genesis Creation Stories……………………106
A. Powell’s reading of Genesis 2:18-24………………………………106
B. The male-female prerequisite in Genesis 1:26-28…………………106
C. The male-female prerequisite in Genesis 2:18-24…………………108
D. “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”…………………...109
E. The Genesis prerequisite in canonical context……………………..111
F. Implications for Powell’s view……………………………………..115
1. A prerequisite, not just the “normal state of affairs”…..115
2. A sexual complement,
not just an “intimate life-partner”………………...118
3. A conditional opportunity for sexual intimacy,
not an opportunity by right……………………….119
V. The Rest of the Case for Regarding Same-Sex Intercourse as Intrinsically Sinful…122
A. The Levitical prohibitions…………………………………………122
B. The intertextual echo to Genesis 1:26-27 in Romans 1:23-27…….124
C. The reference to nature in Romans 1:26-27……………………….125
D. The evidence from 1 Corinthians 6:9……………………………...126
E. No great mystery: What Paul would have prescribed for the
homosexual Christian in a committed homosexual union……129
VI. Why the Sexual Orientation Argument Doesn’t Work…………………………….136
A. Ancient theories of a biological basis
for some homoerotic attraction……………………………….137
B. The wording of Romans 1:24-27………………………………….142
C. Why a “homosexual orientation” would not have mattered………143
VII. Concluding Observations…………………………………………………………148
@ 2003 Robert A. J. Gagnon
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