The issue of homosexuality is a “first-order” theological issue as it presents itself in the current cultural debate. Fundamental truths essential to the Christian faith are at stake in this confrontation. These truths range from basic issues of theism to biblical authority, the nature of human beings, God’s purpose and prerogatives in creation, sin, salvation, sanctification, and, by extension, the entire body of evangelical divinity.
Put bluntly, if the claims put forward by the Homosexual Movement are true, the entire system of the Christian faith is compromised, and some essential truths will fall.
Lest this be seen as an overstatement, consider the issue of biblical authority and inspiration. If the claims of revisionist exegetes are valid, then the very notions of verbal inspiration and biblical inerrancy are invalidated. But the challenge is yet deeper, for if, as the revisionist interpreters claim, Holy Scripture can be so wrong and misdirected on this issue (to which it speaks so unambiguously), the evangelical paradigm of biblical authority cannot stand.
As is the case with most ideological campaigns directed to the Church, the Homosexual Movement comes complete with a well-defined hermeneutic. In fact, politico-ideological crusades which aspire for influence within the churches must develop and articulate what I will term a hermeneutic of legitimation, designed to provide at least the appearance of biblical sanction. Thus, biblical interpretation becomes contested territory between rival worldviews.
The Homosexual Movement has employed a well-documented hermeneutic suspicion toward biblical texts which address homosexuality. Their efforts have been to prove that the actions proscribed in biblical passages (notably Genesis 19 and Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13) do not refer to consensual homosexual acts, but to homosexual rape and prostitution. Or, when this effort is crushed on the shores of reality, to suggest that though the passages do not speak of homosexual acts, they reveal a patriarchal and oppressive bias that must be rejected by the contemporary Church. Furthermore, it is commonly argued, Paul did not know of the reality of homosexual orientation, and thus Romans 1:26-27 must be read as if it referred to homosexual acts on the part of otherwise heterosexual persons.
The net result of this hermeneutic of legitimation has been confusion in the churches. It has become the standard and politically-correct perspective assumed in most sectors of the academy, and it is increasingly prevalent among members of the mainline Protestant denominations. Disappointingly, a number of evangelicals have been taken in as well.
An early attempt at revising the Church’s view of homosexuality was undertaken by D. Sherwin Bailey in Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition, but the most influential work came twenty-five years later with the publication of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality by John Boswell, a professor of history at Yale University. Similar proposals have come from figures such as John J. McNeill, a former Jesuit expelled from the order for his views on homosexuality. The most significant recent contribution to this debate is L. William Countryman’s Dirt, Sex, and Greed.
The revisionist hermeneutic, as applied to Romans 1:26-27, has been employed to argue that the text means something quite different from the Church’s traditional interpretation. By employing circumventions, circumlocutions, and contortions, the text’s meaning is revised so as to negate its judgment upon homosexuality.
The critical issue used as a hermeneutical device by the revisionists is the concept of sexual orientation. The modern “discovery” of sexual orientation is used to deny the truth claim clearly and inescapably made within the biblical text. For example, in regard to the Romans text, Janet Fishburn of Drew University Theological School argues: “Yet, some biblical scholars point out that this passage can only refer to the homosexual acts of heterosexual persons. This is because the writers of the Bible did not distinguish between homosexual orientation and same-gender sexual acts. If this distinction is accepted, the condemnation of homosexuality in Romans does not apply to the sexual acts of homosexual persons.”
Similarly, New Testament professor Victor Paul Furnish argued that since Paul was unaware of the modern concept of homosexual orientation, his rejection of homosexuality must itself be rejected: “Not only the terms, but the concepts of ‘homosexual,’ and ‘homosexuality’ were unknown in Paul’s day. These terms like ‘heterosexual,’ ‘heterosexuality,’ ‘bisexual’ and ‘bisexuality,’ presuppose an understanding of human sexuality that was possible only with the advent of modern psychology and sociological analysis. The ancient writers were operating without the vaguest idea of what we have learned to call ‘sexual orientation.'”
Just how far some are willing to go in an effort to contort the biblical text is made clear by Countryman. Again, the issue is the construct of sexual orientation: “Homosexual orientation has been increasingly recognized in our time as a given of human sexuality. While most people feel some attraction to members of both the same and the opposite sex and, in the majority of these, attraction to the opposite sex dominates, there is a sizable minority for whom sexual attraction to persons of the same sex is a decisive shaping factor of their sexual lives…. To deny an entire class of human beings the right peaceably and without harming others to pursue the kind of sexuality that corresponds to their nature is a perversion of the gospel.”
These statements indicate the general approach taken by revisionist scholarship and the ever-widening scope of the revisionist sweep. The hermeneutic of legitimation has been stunningly effective in forming a culture which accepts homosexual behavior and denies binding authority to clear biblical injunctions. But this trend is not limited to mainline Protestantism and liberal Roman Catholicism. Some who claim evangelical identity also share the same revisionist methodology and conclusions. In an article published in the evangelical journal, TSF Bulletin, Kathleen E. Corley and Karen J. Torjesen argue that: “It would appear then that in Paul issues of sexuality are theologically related to hierarchy, and therefore the issues of biblical feminism and lesbianism are irrefutably intertwined…. In the end, it would seem that if the church is going to deal with the issues of sexuality it is also going to have to deal with hierarchy. We need to grapple with the possibility that our conflicts over the appropriate use of human sexuality may rather be conflicts rooted in a need to legitimate and traditional social structure which assigns men and women specific and unequal positions. Could it be that the continued affirmation of the primacy of heterosexual marriage is possibly also the affirmation of the necessity for the sexes to remain in hierarchically structured relationships? Is the threat to marriage really a threat to hierarch? Is that what makes same-sex relationships so threatening, so frightening?”
The arguments appeal to modern therapeutic constructs such as the hypothetical sexual orientation and use these to call into judgment the meaning of the biblical text. The essence of the complex revisionist arguments comes down to this: either the biblical texts do not proscribe homosexuality, but have been misconstrued by an oppressive heterosexist and patriarchal Church to deny homosexuals their rights; or, the biblical texts do proscribe homosexuality, but are oppressive, heterosexists, and patriarchal in themselves, and thus must be rejected or radically re-interpreted in order to remove the scandal of oppression.
What must be transparently clear by now is that these revisionist methodologies and hermeneutics of legitimation deny the truth status of Holy Scripture. The passages are not merely re-interpreted in light of clear historical-grammatical exegesis–they are subverted and denied by implication and direct assault. But few revisionists are as direct in their assault as William M. Kent, a member of the United Methodist Committee to Study Homosexuality. Kent asserted that, “…the scriptural texts in the Old and New testaments condemning homosexual practice are neither inspired by God nor otherwise of enduring Christian value. Considered in the light of the best biblical, theological, scientific, and social knowledge, the biblical condemnation of homosexual practice is better understood as representing time and place bound cultural prejudice.”
But Kent is not alone. From the theological academy, Robin Scoggs puts his position plainly: “Quite clearly….I cannot in conscience accept the view that makes biblical injunctions into necessarily eternal ethical truths, independent of the historical and cultural context.” Strikingly, Gary David Comstock, university Protestant chaplain at Wesleyan University argues: “Not to recognize, critique, and condemn Paul’s equation of godlessness with homosexuality is dangerous. To remain within our respective Christian traditions and not challenge those passages that degrade and destroy us is to contribute to our own oppression….Those passages will be brought up and used against us again and again until Christians demand their removal from the biblical canon or, at the very least, formally discredit their authority to prescribe behavior.”
Evangelicals must lay bare the nature of this assault on the integrity and authority of the biblical text. Christianity stands or falls upon the validity and integrity of the revelation-claim made by Holy Scripture. This challenge must be met directly and publicly, and evangelicals must call the exegetical bluff put forward by the revisionists. The foundational assault must be addressed. The confessing Church must not be intimidated, coerced, or compromised by the revisionists.
As theologian Elizabeth Achtemeier asserted: “The clearest teaching of Scripture is that God intended sexual intercourse to be limited to the marriage relationship of one man and one woman.” A clear reminder of what is at stake comes, interestingly enough, from Robin Lane Fox, a secular historian: “As for homosexuality, Paul and the other apostles agreed with the accepted Jewish view that it was deadly sin which provoked God’s wrath. It led to earthquakes and natural disasters, which were evident in the fate of Sodom. The absence of Gospel teaching on the topic did not amount to tacit approval. All orthodox Christians knew that homosexuals went to Hell until a modern minority tried to make them forget it.”
Of course, “all orthodox Christians” knew that all unrepentant and unredeemed sinners go to Hell, and unrepentant homosexuals were in a very large company. But only in modern times have revisionists tried to suggest with seriousness that the Bible is unclear on the issue of homosexuality and that the Church must forfeit its traditional–and exegetically inescapable–understanding of the relevant biblical texts. The “modern minority” identified by Fox has been, nonetheless, stunningly successful in confusing the Church.