A coherent, biblical, pro-gay theology of sex?

Andrew and Giles Goddard (no relation) have been engaged in a series of online discussions on homosexuality. The latest missive from Andrew to Giles is interesting because Andrew has deliberately upped the ante and challenged Giles to reply with a coherent, biblical pro-gay theology.

As you say, ‘we have to start engaging with the more crunchy issue, which is, of course, the place of sexual expression of love within same-gender relationships’. Your sentence at the end of that paragraph is I think the one that has kept haunting me ever since I first read it – ‘I think at the moment the place that I part company with the Church is that whereas I see their sexual expression as integral to the relationship’s godliness the Church sees it as inimical’. I appreciated your honest acknowledgment here that you part company not just with me but with ‘the Church’. I was also astonished at the way in which your soundbite summary captures why this is so crucial – how can the Church hold together and guide people in godliness when some are saying that something is integral to godliness which the Church declares to be inimical to it? We are here facing the stark fact that what you and others see as integral to being God-like in certain relationships, I and others see as embodying a rejection and denial of God’s character and purposes. Expressed like that I think we can see why this really cannot just be classed as ‘adiaphora’, ‘second-order’, somewhere where we can simply agree to differ and follow different practices.

Even more serious is the question of how we are going to resolve this fundamental incompatibility. Do you really mean it when you say (in response to “What are God’s commandments?”) that you answer this only by looking to Jesus and that when you do this you only find two commandments? I would have thought given your commitment to Scripture and the Anglican tradition you might have at least got the number of commandments into double figures!  We talked early on – just over a year ago – about the Articles and I was encouraged that you said “I think they’re a neglected resource for the Church of England – I re-read them last year to remind myself of this particular foundational aspect of our Church and was pleased that I could find little to disagree with” I wonder how your reading of Scripture here fits with Article 7 – “The Old Testament is not contrary to the New…Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral”?

Andrew lays out the historical framework for his challenge. The traditional understanding of human sexuality and sexual practice is on his side, is expressed clearly in the 39 Articles, and that Giles needs to present some good evidence if he wants Anglicans to overturn that.

Your further claim is that you find “no commandments…about the place of sex in same-gender relationships”. This not only ignores the obvious commandments in Leviticus (about which we may talk more I guess) but also the clear warnings of Paul in the New Testament and Jesus’ commandments and teaching about sexual immorality. These, when they are responsibly set and interpreted in historical and cultural context as the words of a first-century Jew and received by us as the words of the incarnate Son of God cannot be understood to say nothing about the place of sex in same-gender relationships.

A true coherent theology of sex is going to have to handle the Levitical passages seriously and with some credibility. You can’t simply dismiss them (which is what "To Set our Hope on Christ" did) – you need to explain what they meant in the 10th century BC and what they would have meant to Jesus.

The case that I think Stephen and you need to make – biblically and theologically – is (1) that there is some structure of relationship between people of the same sex that is, in God’s purposes, equivalent to marriage, (2) that in such relationships there are forms of sexual intimacy between people of the same sex which are equivalent to sexual intimacy between people of the opposite sex in marriage despite the biological differences and lack of procreative capacity, and (3) that such sexual intimacy (though never commended in Scripture and always condemned in Scripture – which itself therefore requires certain hermeneutical and perhaps other moves) is in fact intrinsic to the goodness, holiness, sanctity and godliness of such relationships whereas it would – to pick up your language –be inimical to godliness in any other sort of relationship.

This is the key point. It’s not good enough simply to say that the Bible speaks of graceful love. The BIble also shows explicitly where the boundary of the sexual/erotic expression of that graceful love is between two people of different sexes. In order to have any theological credibility, the pro-gay argument needs to demonstrate a similar clarity for same-sex relationships. If it is unable to do so it should admit as much.

I (and expect many others) am really looking forward to Giles’ reply. Will he step up to the mark and provide that which is called for?

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3 Comments on “A coherent, biblical, pro-gay theology of sex?

  1. Hello again Peter,

    I don’t suppose you’ve fallen down in shock at seeing me comment on this…

    Given the lateness of the hour I’m keener than normal to be brief (not saying much I know) – so will offer a ragbag of comments.

    i) In the first paragraph you quote AG says he doesn’t see how same-sex can be seen as a ‘second-order’ issue. “…how can the Church hold together and guide people in godliness when some are saying that something is integral to godliness which the Church declares to be inimical to it?” I don’t think he’s fully made his case here – he may have done in other texts, but not here. AG doesn’t say how same-sex sex in a committed relationship (I’m taking it this is what’s under discussion) can be seen as “embodying a rejection and denial of God’s character and purposes”. So it’s not clear solely from reading his text above that this must be a first-order issue. I think that in the first 2 paragraphs you quote above, he’s also missing out the question of what is a true characterisation of homosexuality – the question whether it’s a pathology or not, which must partly involve engagement with findings of science such as those you’ve alluded to before, Peter. Addressing this question must be a key part of answering what AG calls “the question of how we are going to resolve this fundamental incompatibility”.

    ii) “The traditional understanding of human sexuality…”: it seems to me it should be admitted that ‘the tradition’ isn’t single or univocal on this. I’m not denying that the prohibition of same-sex sex (certainly between men) is a long-standing Christian tradition. But I think it’s true to say it hasn’t always been seen or understood the way it is now. If so I think this means that AG does not in any straightforward sense have ‘the church’ on his side – again, the case surely has to be made, rather than just assumed or grasped at as a weighty authority. As an example of what I mean about different ways of seeing – think of the moves in recent decades towards equality of men and women. This gives a quite different context for the prohibition from what would have been the context in previous centuries, i’d suggest. If for instance penetrating a man were held to reduce him to the status of a woman – what of that way of thinking if the sexes are held to be equal?

    iii) “…the obvious commandments in Leviticus…”: what’s a little surprising about that part of AG’s text is that he appears to be assuming (I might be being unfair here) that Leviticus condemns all same-sex sex. The only same-sex sexual act prohibited in Lev 18:22 / 20:13 is anal sex between men. As you say Peter “You can’t simply dismiss” those texts. But that doesn’t mean they can be straighforwardly applied now. I’ve referred in a comment before (I think) to Rabbi Steven Greenberg’s book, ‘Wrestling with God and men: homosexuality in the Jewish tradition’. I think I said I’d try and summarise it but then didn’t (!)… and I can’t summarise it as such now! R. Greenberg is an Orthodox Rabbi who is openly gay (the only such that I’m aware of). In the book he rereads the Levitical text and interprets it as condemning the sort of anal penetration that was accompanied by humiliation and violence – and James Alison suggests that the story in 2 Samuel of Hanun and David’s servants illuminates this as it is working from a similar context and understanding. As I say that’s not much of a summary but am trying to suggest that Steven Greenberg does “handle the Levitical passages seriously and with some credibility”.

    As a provocative aside: this talk of Leviticus does show the falsity of one of Robert Gagnon’s points – that there is an “other-sex prerequisite”, as he puts it, for sexual acts which is held throughout the Bible. If there is one it isn’t ‘held throughout the Bible’ – there’s no prohibition on sex between women in the Torah.

    I’ll stop there (about time too, etc…)

    in friendship, Blair

  2. Hi Blair,

    i) I think in the context of the whole correspondence you’ll see that he does demonstrate that same-sex activity is not a secondary issue.

    ii) Your example of “a man being penetrated being reduced to the level of a woman” muddies the issue. While we might agree that the articulation of the traditional Biblical sex ethic has at some times being sexist and misogynistic, we must surely also agree that it has had at its core a consistent understanding of what holy sex is (and isn’t). The bottom line is that same-sex activity has *never* been viewed by the church as acceptable.

    iii) There’s nothing in the Levitical text that can be taken to only prohibit anal sex. The language doesn’t express that and while some conservative commentators (naively I might add) try to link the Greek LXX translation to anal sex and the 1 Cor 6 expressions to penetrative and receptive acts, the words themselves don’t support that argument.
    Indeed, the attempt to narrow the Levitical texts to simply an anal act is a reductionist line of reasoning that seeks to avoid the clear words of the verses – “tiskab” (lie down) cannot be taken as simply implying one specific form of sex (anal) when there is no textual support for such a view. On this front Rabbi Greenberg is engaging in mishpat that simply has no grounding in the text.

  3. With due predictability, here I am again…

    1) Will take your word for it Peter that AG has made a case for same-sex sex being a first-order issue, in the correspondence as a whole – I have read all the letters between the Goddards but can’t recall enough detail of them and am not about to skim them all again now!

    I still disagree that this is a first-order issue, yet agree with AG that this isn’t a matter on which we can “agree to differ and follow different practices” – because it seems to me that (as others have said and I said in pt (i) in first comment) there’s a question of truth at stake. Is the traditional prohibition of same-sex sex grounded in a true characterisation of homosexuality? That’s the question (…but I’m repeating myself) that I haven’t seen AG engage with (I hope that’s not unfair to him. I found a download of ‘True Union in the Body’ as a pdf the other day but haven’t yet read it).

    2) I put in the example of “a man being penetrated being reduced to the level of a woman” because (hope this is right) it’s fair to say that’s how such an act would have been seen in antiquity, given a context where men were held to be superior to women. Was trying to make the point that as the context has changed, so the meaning of such an act must change also – which I’d suggest is one small reason (among others) why it’s no longer enough simply to take the traditional prohibition at face value as authoritative. I’m not denying “that same-sex activity has *never* been viewed by the church as acceptable”, but it doesn’t follow that a given teaching is true, from the fact that it’s traditional or long-held.

    3) (What’s a mishpat by the way?!)

    On Leviticus 18:22 / 20:13 and anal sex, you say “the langauge doesn’t express that”. But I’d suggest that there is a case for saying the language does point that way.

    ve’et zakhar lo tishkav mishkeve ishah toe’vah hi – ‘and with a male you shall not lie the lyings of a woman: it is abhorrent’, as Greenberg renders it. He goes on to look at the phrase ‘the lyings of a woman’ as (apparently!) ‘mishkeve ishah’ is not a phrase found anywhere else in Hebrew scripture. A parallel phrase, ‘mishkav zakhar’, the lying of a male, is (it says here) found in Numbers. Greenberg continues: “Women who know the ‘lying of a male’ are experienced in intercourse. The ‘lying of a male’ is apparently what a woman experiences in intercourse, that is, the penetration of the vagina [endnote here says note Numbers 31:18 and 35, and Judges 21:11]. If this phrase is the reverse of our phrase in Leviticus, then we have found a possible meaning. The ‘lyings of a woman’ (mishkeve ishah) would mean what a man experiences in intercourse with a woman, that is, the engulfment of the penis. Men then commonly know ‘the lyings of a woman’, and women the ‘lyings of men’. Consequently the verse reads, ‘And you shall not lie with a male in the way you lie with a woman’, that is, in a way that involves the engulfment of the penis in penetrative intercourse” (‘Wrestling with God and men’, p80).

    So there are grounds in the text of the verse for saying that it’s anal sex that’s prohibited. Greenberg goes on to say that while the Hebrew verb shokhev “can mean ‘to lie down’, when it takes a direct object, as in this verse, it has a meaning similar to the English of ‘bedding’ someone”. He adds that this verb “may well be related to the Hebrew word ‘shekhovet’, ‘seminal emission’, or as biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom has suggested, ‘penis’. If so, then the verb is clearly describing active penetration”.

    Might have gone a bit far with the quoting there, but am hoping to have given a flavour of R. Greenberg’s argument. Interesting that you mention the Greek LXX translation and 1 Cor 6 – we discussed this on the ‘Bert and Ernie’ thread also.

    I’ll leave off there.

    in friendship, Blair

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