A Presbyterian professor re-energizes the debate over homosexuality and the Bible

Posted: Friday, July 27, 2001

Is homosexuality condemned by the Bible?

The question is at the heart of a debate in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which is struggling over whether to lift its ban on gay clergy. Now a conservative scholar has mounted a vigorous defense of existing church policy, based on a close reading of Scripture.

Robert A.J. Gagnon, of the Presbyterians' Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, started to write an article on the subject and ended up producing ''The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics.''

The new 520-page tome may be the most comprehensive assessment of the Bible texts related to homosexuality since the issue began roiling several of America's major Protestant denominations three decades ago.

In June, delegates to the Presbyterians' national assembly voted to abolish the church's ban on actively homosexual clergy and lay officers.

In the coming months, 173 presbyteries, or regional legislatures, will vote on whether to follow the delegates' action and repeal the ban. Church policy will be set by whatever the majority of presbyteries decide.

They could lift the ban with solid scholarly support. An open letter urging the delegates to lift the ban was signed by a majority among Bible professors at Presbyterian seminaries -- 33 out of 58.

One of those professors, the Rev. Brian Blount of Princeton Theological Seminary, told a meeting of Presbyterians fighting the ban that the New Testament obviously condemns gay behavior.

But, he said, ''they are words out of a particular context. Our context is so significantly different that I don't think the words are any longer living, but dead words if we try to read them without contextually understanding them.''

Gagnon's book is appearing in ample time for people attending the regional meetings to ponder whether his rebuttal to the 33 professors has merit.

The liberal professors neatly summed up the typical arguments for lifting the gay ban in their letter:

--Bible passages about homosexuality should be understood for ''their meaning in their own time.'' On careful reading, they ''seem to be advocating values such as hospitality to strangers, ritual purity or the sinfulness of all human beings before God.''

--''The concept of homosexuality as now understood'' is probably not something the ancient biblical writers could have known.

--The church should honor ''the rule of love'' rather than ''pronouncing judgment upon a specific behavior of a whole category of persons,'' since the Bible's overarching principles are inclusivity and justice.

Gagnon, however, thinks the strictly heterosexual view of gender and sexuality in the creation (Genesis 1 and 2) is fundamental. Assessing ancient Jewish thought apart from the Bible, he says heterosexuality was seen as God's design built into human anatomy.

Of about 20 biblical texts with some bearing, Gagnon focuses on the Old Testament's Leviticus 18:22 and Romans 1:26-27 in the New Testament.

Gagnon translates the Leviticus command as: ''With a male you shall not lie as though lying with a woman; it is an abomination.'' (Leviticus 20:13 is similar, with the death penalty added).

Liberals note that this verse is embedded in a code of Jewish ritual purity laws, most of which Christians disregard. But Gagnon argues that Christians have always upheld sexual prohibitions in the same chapter against adultery (verse 20), incest (6-18) and bestiality (23).

Jesus Christ never condemned same-sex behavior, liberals further contend. Gagnon responds that there's no reason to suppose Jesus disagreed with Jewish sexual morals, since he ''was not shy about expressing his disapproval of the conventions of his day.''

And in Mark 10:6-9 and Matthew 19:3-6, Gagnon says, Jesus endorsed the exclusive heterosexuality of Genesis 1 and 2. In those passages, while answering a question about divorce, Jesus says that ''from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.'' He also says ''the two shall become one.''

Paul's statement in Romans addresses homosexuality more directly.

Gagnon's translation is: ''God gave them over to dishonorable passions, for even their females exchanged the natural use for that which is contrary to nature; and likewise also the males, having left behind the natural use of the female, were inflamed with their yearning for one another, males with males committing indecency and in return receiving in themselves the payback which was necessitated by their straying.''

Liberal thinkers contend that here Paul was condemning only homosexual acts by those whose natural orientation was heterosexual, or else the Greeks' sexual exploitation of youths and social inferiors, and would not have understood the modern idea that people are born homosexual and should form loving relationships.

Gagnon disputes such arguments in detail, examining both ancient culture and modern scientific evidence.

Even if Paul thought exploitative relationships and pederasty were especially despicable, Gagnon says, that doesn't negate his ''wider reference to all men who sleep with other males.'' In the Bible, he writes, ''it simply does not matter how well homosexual conduct is done; what matters is that it is done at all.''

Gagnon also examines two disputed Greek words in so-called ''vice lists'' of 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10. In his interpretation, ''malakoi'' means any males who play the sexual role of females, and ''arsenokoitai'' means any men who sleep with males. Some scholars say the terms referred to prostitutes.

As for the liberals' emphasis on love and justice, Gagnon agrees those are vital principles but says they don't negate specific biblical commandments.

This book was no project to undertake lightly, Gagnon said in an interview. ''The political climate in academia is very much in favor of affirming homosexual relationships, so the fear factor is considerable among those who disagree,'' he said.

But he wrote the book because he's convinced that wider acceptance of same-sex activity will harm society -- including homosexuals themselves.

He also thinks endorsement of gay and lesbian activity ''will shake to the core the church's fidelity toward Scripture.'' If such a ''pervasive, severe and absolute'' biblical prohibition can be overturned, he believes, no teaching of Scripture is safe.

End Advance for Friday AMs, July 27

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