I mentioned that I have been working my way through James Brownson’s book Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. I have looked at his argument that the “one flesh” motif in Genesis 1:24 speaks of kinship bonds rather than biological gender complementarity. Here I have set out a synopsis of the overall thesis of the book, drawing mostly on the convenient summaries provided at the end of each chapter. It is rather too condensed and may be a bit difficult to follow, but it should give an idea of his argument. I plan to attempt an assessment over the next few days. Andrew Goddard, however, has kindly drawn attention to his review of the book for Fulcrum and a longer critique written in his capacity as Associate Director at the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics.
Chapter 1: Brownson aims for a reading of the Bible that exposes the “moral logic that shapes biblical prohibitions or commands” (15). That is, we have to understand not only what the Bible says but also why the Bible says it. This is especially important when interpreting scripture in cross-cultural contexts.
The church has sometimes had to “exercise its imagination to discern a wider and more encompassing form of moral logic” in order to make sense of scripture in changing cultural and intellectual contexts. The examples given are the revision of cosmology after Galileo, the abolition of slavery, and the move towards a more egalitarian position regarding women in ministry (10). The book is an attempt to accomplish a similar widening of the imagination with respect to “same-sex intimate relationships” (15).
Chapter 2: Traditionalists argue for a form of moral logic determined by a “divinely intended gender complementarity” understood primarily as the “anatomical or biological complementarity of male and female” (37). Gender complementarity, however, is not what is being asserted in the creation of the woman in Genesis 2. Brownson presents four “countertheses”:
i) the original ʿadam is not a sexually undifferentiated being who is then divided into male and female and must be reunited as male and female in marriage in order to be the whole image of God;
ii) the emphasis is on similarity (“a helper fit for him”, “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”) rather than complementarity;
iii) being male and female in the image of God means that they share dominion, etc., not that gender complementarity must express the divine image;
iv) the “one flesh” union of Genesis 2:24 connotes the kinship bond rather than gender complementarity.
The last point is developed further in chapter 5. Brownson concludes that “there is nothing inherent in the biblical usage that would necessarily exclude committed gay or lesbian unions from consideration as one-flesh unions, when the essential characteristics of one-flesh unions as kinship bonds are held clearly in view” (109). I examined this argument in more detail here.
Chapter 3: Revisionist positions tend to rely on “broad biblical categories like justice and love” in order to affirm same-sex relationships, but a wider canonical approach is required if we are to develop a “full sexual ethic from Scripture” (53). In that respect, Brownson wants to present a biblically conservative rather than liberal case.
Chapter 4: Contrasting patriarchal and egalitarian streams can be discerned running through scripture. The egalitarian position is the “eschatological destiny of human life”, but for now we live with the tension between the “already” of the new life to come and the “not yet” of persistent patriarchal structures (84). This means that a purported gender complementarity based on hierarchy cannot be used to disqualify same-sex unions.
Chapter 6: Roman Catholic teaching makes procreation an essential purpose of marriage, whereas Protestant teaching puts the emphasis on its unitive purpose. If the validity of the marriage union does not rest on procreation, same-sex unions cannot be ruled out simply on the grounds that they are not inherently procreative (126).
Chapter 7: Generally speaking the Bible recognizes that some people may be called to celibacy, but given also the modern awareness of the persistence of sexual orientation, it is very difficult to think that all gay and lesbian people will be given the “gift” of lifelong celibacy (146). Expecting all gay and lesbian Christians to remain celibate, therefore, seems unreasonable.
The next four chapters focus on “the boundaries that distinguish an emerging biblical vision for sexuality from a variety of distortions and corruptions” by examining four issues associated with sexual behaviour in Romans 1:24-27: lust, honour and shame, purity, and natural law (149).
Chapter 8: First, the perception of same-sex relations in the ancient world was that they were driven by inordinate and insatiable desire, and it is this sort of departure from normal sexual behaviour that Paul condemns in Romans 1:24-27. There may also be an allusion to the “notorious excesses of a former Roman emperor, Gaius Caligula, whose idolatrous patterns and sexual excesses—including same-sex eroticism—were well known” (178). If the focus is on the subjective aspect of the behaviour condemned (“lusts” and “passions”), it may be argued that the modern phenomenon of moderate, committed same-sex unions falls outside the scope of Paul’s critique in this chapter.
Chapter 9: Secondly, Paul speaks of same-sex eroticism as “impurity”. In the New Testament we see a development beyond Old Testament notions of impurity: it is more a matter of the heart than of external cleanness; there is a shift from defensiveness and separation towards confidence and mission in the power of the Holy Spirit; and the objective is less to recover an original creation than to realize a new creation. This reinforces the point that Paul is more concerned with inner attitudes than with external practice. It raises the question, therefore, ‘whether committed gay and lesbian unions, which seek to discipline passion and desire by means of lifelong commitment, should still be characterized as “impurity”’ (203).
Chapter 10: Thirdly, Paul’s characterization of sexual misconduct in this passage as “degrading” and “shameless” must be understood in the context of the prevailing honour-shame culture of the ancient world. In this context, it is likely that the statement about “their women” in verse 26 refers not to same-sex activity but to “dishonorable forms of heterosexual intercourse” (222). Degrading sexual acts between men refers either to the ancient assumption that same-sex eroticism is an expression of excessive lust or to the view that “a man was inherently degraded by being penetrated as a woman would be”. What is shameful about the sexual activity described in Romans 1:24-27 is that it is marked by “lust, licentiousness, self-centredness, abuse, and the violation of gender roles that were widely accepted in the ancient world”. The church must consider whether this accurately describes every contemporary same-sex relationship.
Chapter 11: Fourthly, the most complex chapter in the book addresses the question of what Paul meant by saying that women and men gave up “natural” relations for behaviours that are “contrary to nature”. “Nature” is not an inherently biblical concept; it is a Stoic category used in the Hellenistic period in order to “interpret Jewish ethics to Gentiles” (254-55). There were three dimensions to the concept: i) the “nature or disposition” of an individual person; ii) that which determines the “good order of society as a whole”; and iii) “biological processes, particularly procreation”.
Paul’s use of the term reflects all three aspects: in his view, same-sex eroticism is driven by an “unnatural” and excessive desire for the exotic in men who were not content with “natural” heterosexual relations; his judgment reflects ancient social conventions; and same-sex relations are “unnatural” because they are “nonprocreative”. The biblical vision of new creation invites us to reimagine what is natural as the “convergence of individual disposition, social order, and the physical world”. But the church may then ask whether “consecrated and committed gay and lesbian relationships might fit into such a new order”.
Chapter 12: The final chapter covers rather a lot of ground. The point is made again that the “moral logic” that shapes the negative evaluation of same-sex relations in the Bible “does not directly address committed, loving, consecrated same-sex relationships today” (279). There is some discussion of how complementarity, not understood along “hard-wired gender lines”, may be a helpful concept for understanding both heterosexual and same-sex relationships. The remaining biblical texts are examined briefly. The stories of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19) and of the Levite’s concubine (Judg. 19) have to do with violent rape and the violation of male honour; they have no relevance for “committed and loving same-sex relationships”. The prohibitions in Leviticus 18:22; 20:13 presuppose ancient concerns about purity and the pagan cults. The references to same-sex behaviour in the New Testament vice lists (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10) have in view pederasty—the occasional use of boy prostitutes, typically by older powerful men.
As a final summary, it seems to me that three main claims emerge out of this overview of Brownson’s study.
First, if being “one flesh” consists not in the biological or anatomical complementarity of man and woman but in a broader notion of “kinship bond”, there appears to be scope for considering lifelong, loving, committed same-sex unions in a similar light. In other words, the biblical understanding of “marriage” may not preclude same-sex marriage.
Secondly, what is condemned in passages such as Romans 1:24-27 is the occasional or casual degrading departure from normal heterosexual relations, driven by excessive lust. The possibility of lifelong, loving, committed same-sex unions is not considered and therefore is not condemned.
Thirdly, there is a strong eschatological component: the church has the task of imagining—in a properly prophetic or biblical sense—and enacting a different type of social future that is not simply a reversion to the pattern of the old creation.