(Zondervan, 2016)

Zondervan’s Two Views of Homosexuality, the Bible and the Church (edited by Preston Sprinkle), is worth your time because it does two difficult things successfully. First, it provides approachable essays by committed Christians and academics which present the two major views of the church’s practice as it relates to same-sex unions. Secondly, the book refuses to relegate this topic to the theoretical or abstract. The work recognizes the real pastoral concerns and persons affected by these questions.

The format of the book follows a structure found in other books in the Zondervan Counterpoint series. Each one of the four authors presents their case. Each of the other authors responds in turn. Finally, the section author pens a rejoinder at the end of their section. There are two authors per “side” of this debate, one biblical scholar and one theologian. Representing the “affirming” side (in favor of blessing of same-sex marriages) are William Loader and Megan K. Defranza. For the “traditional” side Wesley Hill (opposing blessing same-sex marriage) and Stephen R. Holmes present their cases. Comparing the authors’ takes on Romans 1 demonstrates the diversity in interpretations, even among authors who reach the same ultimate conclusion.

William Loader supports openness to and blessing of same-sex relationships, though he does not believe the Bible is open to them. According to Loader, the Biblical text (particularly Romans 1) sees homosexual “orientation itself as a symptom of sin.”He references views of sexuality ranging from the Old Testament, to Paul, to Philo of Alexandria arguing “For Philo, as for Paul, God made people heterosexual, male or female, not homosexual.” Mention of eunuchs in the biblical text “does not indicate awareness that gender identity can be complex.”

Loader suggests either one rejects a modern understanding of sexual orientation as natural and unchosen, or we amend Christian understanding of sexual ethics. He rejects more “compassionate” attempts to read scripture and instead counsels that same-sex marriage may just be one area “where it has been necessary to supplement first-century understandings of reality with twenty-first-century understandings.” In short, given that we know same-sex attraction is not a result of idolatry and all people are not “naturally” heterosexual, we should amend our ethics. He cites the allowance of divorce as something clearly forbidden by scripture that the church sometimes sees as “the more caring option.” So too, Loader argues, it may be with homosexuality—we may adapt our Christian ethics and develop a doctrine beyond what the biblical texts say.

Megan Defranza sees much more ambiguity in the biblical texts. She points to the history of sexual slavery and encultured ancient ideas of effeminacy or softness to contextualize condemnations traditionally taken to be about homosexuality. Rejecting views that tie Romans 1 use of “natural” and “unnatural” to refer to male and female reproductive complementarity. She notes that “natural” is often dependent on “social conventions of our own context” and that women taking sexual initiative was likewise considered unnatural in the ancient world.

Defranza references early Christian writers like Chrysostom who conceived homosexual actions in terms of excess and exploitation rather than mutually committed loving relationships. Paul may have been alluding to the sins of Roman aristocracy to make a rhetorical point, rather than issuing a universal condemnation. “As a whole,” she says, “the passage is meant to describe the depravity of those who have rejected God, not faithful gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians seeking to solemnize their relationships with the vows of Christian marriage.” She holds there is reasonable doubt on if the bible issues a blanket condemnation of what we would today consider committed same-sex relationships. Given that modern Christians reject former patriarchal visions of marriage of the ancient world, Defranza believes it likewise in keeping with the overall witness of scripture on fidelity and marriage to bless same-sex relationships.

In the second half of the book, the traditional arguments present their full-length essays.

Wesley Hill opens with pastoral concerns relating his personal experience realizing he is gay as a teenager. Hill notes the lack of positive compared to negative or prohibitive reflection on the matter of homosexuality. The prohibition proved clear, the positive vocation seemed elusive or non-existent. In this way, Hill sees his task as not merely exegetical but deeply personal. What is this positive vocation? His tentative answer, late in the chapter, involves an exploration of new (or rediscovered) friendship, extended families, and what love looks like outside of sexual relationships.

Hill begins by asserting Christ as the center of scripture. Against objections that there are multiple “biblical” views of marriage (from polygamy, to those involving concubines, to monogamy), Hill stresses the development of a “rule” which reads “synthetically with Jesus Christ as their orientation center.” He points to Augustine as an example of faithful synthesis when it comes to theology of marriage. Faithfulness, procreation, symbol (of the love of God in Christ), as the “goods” of marriage suggest sexual difference is not accidental but essential to marriage. Hill argues that this emphasis can be seen in scripture.

Regarding Romans 1, Hill contends that the “story” Paul is telling is rooted in the Hebrew Bible and creation accounts. Romans 1:23 is verbally linked to Genesis (by mentioning creation and echoing Septuagint renderings of Genesis 1:3), and Paul’s use of “nature” should be interpreted in this light. God “giving up” people to unnatural desires indicates its departure from natural created order. “What is foregrounded… is not a patriarchal commitment to hierarchical gender norms, nor a concern with ‘excessive’ heterosexual lust, but rather a departure from what Francis Watson has called the creational ‘interdependence’ of male and female.” In short, it is from the created order same-sex sexual action (not orientation) is universally condemned.

Stephen Holmes argues the right response to expecting a higher standard of sexual ethics from LGBT members than from straight persons is to “become more rigorous in our pastoral dealings with straight people” arguing for a revival of a Christian sexual ethic which sees human sexuality as orientated primarily toward procreation, not pleasure. He argues the historical position on Christian marriage displays “remarkable unity.” Early Christianity saw virginity as valued, and marriage as acceptable but second best. Rather than a platonic distrust of the body, this is rooted in belief in the resurrection. Because all die, procreation is necessary. Thus, the reality of the resurrection frees humanity from the obligation to marry, though it is still allowed. With Augustine, Holmes suggests all humans, regardless of orientation, are sexually disordered. Marriage is not a place to release our desires, but to re-order them. This must involve, he claims, a real degree of openness to procreation. Holmes goes so far as to suggest that even if passages against homosexuality were not in the Bible, Christians would still be having this debate because “our understanding of marriage is built on procreation and otherness.”

This point deserves highlighting. One of the affirming arguments claims the biblical witness issues a blanket condemnation of same-sex-sexual-activity, and one of the traditional arguments claims the traditional view can be defended apart from such condemnations. This highlights the diversity of interpretation and the importance of each author’s starting points in argument. It also highlights how well Zondervan and book editor Preston Sprinkle did in choosing its contributors.

Moving from the witness of the broader Christian tradition, Holmes turns to culture. Holmes employs queer theory to face four objections to the traditional argument: orientation, right to marry (justice), “demonstrable virtue” in gay and lesbian relationships and that such virtue “makes licit” the relationship.  He argues much of Western conceptions color and inform the potency of these arguments and points to varying social norms of sexuality which vary across culture. Holmes points out our concept of “orientation” may be locally true, but suggests our view that sexual activity is necessary to be fulfilled may be our own cultural blinders—one that makes of marriage an “inevitable part of Christian maturity.” These cultural assumptions, Holmes says, are driving the conversation rather than theological reflection on marriage. For the “demonstrable virtue” argument, Holmes points to virtuous polyamory or idolatry that may “produce real virtues” but nevertheless fall short of Christian theology’s demands. He closes by looking at pastoral concerns and possible accommodations, looking at sources as varied from African churches’ responses to polygamy to Robert Song’s suggestion of a “third calling”—a covenant open to sexual activity which is neither marriage nor celibacy.

Each of these arguments are worth your time, and this review does not include the responses or rejoinders. For those looking for a primer on different Christian views on the blessing of same-sex sexual relationships, Zondervan provides a worthy volume.