Culture At Large

Four views on James Brownson’s Bible Gender Sexuality

Josh Larsen

Editor's note: TC is a ministry of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. The denomination's position statement on homosexuality can be found here.

One of the more recent voices in the church’s debate over same-sex relationships is James V. Brownson’s Bible Gender Sexuality. The book argues that an exegesis of the undergirding “moral logic” of Scripture concerning prohibitions against same-sex eroticism reveals that such prohibitions should not apply to long-term, committed, same-sex relationships as we understand them today.

We’ve asked four church leaders – three pastors and a theological studies professor – to offer their responses. As you’ll see, two of them agree with Brownson’s conclusion, while two of them aren’t convinced.

Branson Parler, Associate Professor of Theological Studies at Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

James Brownson raises the right questions, strikes the right tone and strives for evenhanded analysis of both sides of the current debate around same-sex relationships, yet I disagree with him because his argument disconnects procreation and children from human sexuality. This disconnects human sexuality from materiality and actual human bodies. Neither his logic nor his exegesis is convincing.

On the logic side, Brownson lacks sufficient nuance. On the one hand, he argues against connecting procreation with marriage and sexuality; obviously, this would preclude all same-sex sexual activity. On the other hand, he states that procreation is a “secondary” purpose to marriage (119). But “secondary” is not the same as “irrelevant” or “completely disconnected.” Procreation is either inherently connected to the meaning of human sexuality (even if secondarily) or it is not connected at all.

This does not mean that infertile couples don’t have legitimate marriages. Yet the fact that children result only from male-female sexual union is either a profound theological and biological mystery that tells us something deep and true about human sexuality, or it is merely a piece of data regarding raw nature with no theological or ethical implications at all (which explains why we can reduce the product of sexual union to nothing more than a bundle of cells to be discarded at our choice).  

Brownson’s exegetical case is not convincing either. The first words of God to humanity in Genesis are “be fruitful and multiply,” which is both a blessing and a command. Brownson doesn’t engage this text. When he talks about the creation of the woman, he argues that this solves the problem of “aloneness” rather than of “fruitfulness” (89). But as John Walton has pointed out, when God says that it is “not good” that man should be alone, “good” is a functional concept. That is, the man alone can’t complete the task given him by God. Which is what? For starters, being fruitful. Culture making begins with baby making. Further, Brownson himself notes that when Paul talks about homoeroticism as “unnatural,” it’s because it divorces sexuality from procreation (238-240).

Against the great divorce - of sexuality from procreation, of interior self from material body, of biology from morality and theology - I want to affirm, Biblically and theologically, that our materiality still matters.  

Mara Norden, Pastor at The Community, an RCA Ministry in Ada, Mich.

As I scan my marriage for the “traditional” Biblical markers of manhood and womanhood, the only things that ring true are that I have long hair and that my husband likes to hunt. The rest is not so traditional. My husband does the grocery shopping and the cooking for our family. I am not silent in church - in fact, I am a minister. We seek to follow Christ in our marriage and our work, and yet we do not fit the marital picture held forth by so much of the Christian world.

As a faithful Christian, I love the Bible deeply, and yet I have felt sad and confused when I’ve found no choice other than to explain away or ignore certain texts having to do with the role of women (and men) in marriage and in the church because I couldn’t integrate them into my gender identity, my marriage and my undeniable call to ministry. James Brownson’s latest book, Bible Gender Sexuality, freed me from that sadness and confusion by taking these texts from the grips of the gender complementarians and reframing them in the light of whole Biblical witness.

I find it hard to describe how refreshing this is. I grew up in an environment that passively taught gender complementarity (the idea that men and women need each other to be physically and emotionally complete) as God’s design for men and women and for marriage. The unintended consequence of this upbringing has for me been a whole lot of shame: shame about not being married immediately after college; shame about not being a “good” wife who supports her husband with cooking and cleaning; and shame (or at least reluctance) around my gifts for ministry. At least my sexual desires were “legitimate” - I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for my LGBT friends growing up in environments like this.

The book argues that the Bible's prohibitions against same-sex eroticism should not apply to long-term, committed, same-sex relationships as we understand them today.

In short, I find myself rejoicing after reading Brownson’s book. His argument that the moral logic behind marriage and sex in the Bible is strong kinship bonds and not principally procreation or submission/headship frees me from my shame about not being a good enough housewife. His discussion of patriarchy and egalitarianism causes me to celebrate my gifts for ministry and my egalitarian marriage. And the book allows me to find a place in Scripture, in the church and even in marriage for the people I love who are lesbian and gay and transgender and bisexual. Thanks be to God!

David Landegent, Pastor at First Reformed Church in Volga, SD

James Brownson is my brother in Christ, but his book is wrong about same-sex relationships.

Brownson believes that people are born with a sexual orientation that should be accepted because it cannot be changed. I believe instead that all people - not just those in the LGBT community - are born with sinful sexual desires that need to be (and can be) transformed by Christ.

Brownson contends that those opposed to same-sex relationships have not supplied a sufficient moral logic for their stance. Unfortunately, the search for moral logic often echoes the serpent’s question, “Did God really say…?” We end up with an ethic we find personally satisfying or helpful, but constructed with lumber from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Whenever a Biblical command is on a collision course with a sinful desire, moral logic is the tool people use to give desire the right-of-way.

Brownson constantly de-emphasizes the creational aspects of sex. I realize biology has sometimes been used to justify sin (think apartheid and patriarchalism), but we are entering the land of denial to ignore basic God-created anatomy. Biologically, the consummation of the sex act is only possible between a man and a woman. Same-sex couples may engage in sexual (fore)play, but this can never be consummated by the unitive sex act designed by God.

For Brownson, the traditionalist case is a “recipe for deep frustration,” condemning those who are gay or lesbian to “a lifetime of inner turmoil and tension.” Far better, he says, that they be allowed to follow their desires, at least the ones that are not too excessive. I fail to see his point. All people experience deep frustration and inner turmoil when wrestling with sinful desires (see Romans 7). Relief from this tension is not found by giving in to desire, but through a lifetime of surrendering to Christ.

Though some, like Brownson, may think that affirmation is the most loving response to those in committed same-sex relationships, it is far more loving to speak the truth in love about dying to the sinful self and finding new life in Christ.

Joel M. Anderle, Senior Pastor of Community Covenant Church in West Peabody, Mass.

Amidst horrific divisions and heated rhetoric, James Brownson’s Bible Gender Sexuality arrives with a refreshing wind of openness, inclusion and a God who is decidedly uncontrolled by humanity’s tastes.

Brownson’s work compels the reader with a warmth and generosity even as it manages the requirements of scholarly rigor. He refutes myriad arguments against same-sex relationships by deftly managing the linguistic, historical, anthropological and cultural hurdles placed by those who would oppose same-sex relationships today. Carefully considering the hermeneutical questions and the “moral logic” of “traditionalists,” Brownson presents a winsome, engaging, community-building, large-God theology of “revision.”

As Brownson puts it, “At one level, this concept of moral logic is simple and uncontroversial: When interpreting Scriptural commands or prohibitions, we must ask not only what is commanded or prohibited but why” (259). Brownson clarifies the why. Carefully and respectfully moving through the polemics against same-sex relationships today, Brownson brings the clarity of sitz im leben of the Hebrew culture, set amidst the polytheistic ancient near east, the Roman and Greek backgrounds of Jesus’ time and the philosophical cross-currents operative during the Apostle Paul’s writing. Keenly offering a revision of the oft-used complementarity arguments, Brownson opens remarkable space for Christian dialogue on community in Christ.

Notable, too, is his penultimate section, an examination of Romans 1: 24-27 he titles “Exploring the Boundary Language.” Brownson builds a compelling case that Romans 1 has long been misunderstood, with significant words and ideas overlooked and misappropriated. Polemical, yes, but generous and inviting. Finally, Brownson’s conclusion invites the reader to return to the grace and enormity of the New Testament’s witness to a God who is beyond our foolish limitations, inviting us to a loving relational community of mutuality, inclusion and respect. Written as a scholarly conclusion, it achieves this and much more as one is drawn worshipfully to the God who creates, redeems and restores.

Editor’s note: As always, we encourage your comments in the space below, though we do ask that they be focused on the points covered in Brownson’s book or by our contributors in this post.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, The Bible, Theology, Home & Family, Sex, Marriage