Four views on James Brownson’s Bible Gender Sexuality

Josh Larsen

Branson Parler
November 19, 2013

I'm thankful for the grace and candor with which the other contributors engaged this issue. Their comments do raise a couple of questions for me.

Mara, I appreciate your willingness to share your own experiences in this context. Personally, I wholeheartedly support women in all aspects of ministry, not because I explain away or ignore biblical texts, but because I read them in their full historical, cultural, and literary context. Further, I think that husband and wife are both called to submit to one another out of love (Eph. 5:21) and that language of headship has to do with the husband as source of life, love, and service to his wife. But I think that affirming all those things does not necessarily then lead to affirmation of same-sex sexual activity. My question is: do you think those are logically tied together? That if someone affirms women in ministry that their logic should lead them necessarily to accept same-sex relationships?

Joel, I appreciate your comments as well, especially in highlighting Brownson's attention to underlying moral logic. That hermeneutic principle is right on, even if I disagree with Brownson about what the logic is in certain texts. And Brownson's attention to historical context and original setting of the text is exactly right as well. The types of arguments he makes are all right, in terms of form, even if I disagree about the conclusions he draws. But I'm wondering if your comments fall back into the kind of revisionist position that Brownson critiques at the beginning of his book, particularly in your choice of terms. For example, you use terms such as "openness," "inclusion," "mutuality," and "respect." Brownson critiques simply appealing to broad principles like love or justice (45) without close attention to the text itself. My worry is that the terms that you use are inherently loaded in this discussion and therefore not actually helpful. Someone might accuse me of not being "inclusive," but then I might raise the question: why aren't you inclusive of polygamists? Is our distaste for things we call abnormal, such as pedophilia (and what many ancient Greeks called normal), really morally wrong, or is it just an example of "humanity's tastes" that God might actually approve of? So appealing to a term like "inclusive" can sound good, but it doesn't really help us negotiate the concrete discussion around what is right and wrong. In that sense, using those kinds of words in the discussion surrounding this topic is more prejudicial than it is helpful.

Now, I very well be falling back into some of the traps that Brownson suggests we avoid. If so, I'd be curious to hear what they might be.
I'm thankful for the chance to dialogue further on these issues.

Whitney H
November 19, 2013

I would caution against using the argument of procreation as a means to discount committed, homosexual relations. As a Christian woman who has (along with my husband) prayerfully chosen to adopt children (not do to infertility), I see just how weak that argument is. I would also caution against using the argument that the consummation of the sex act can only be made during vaginal intercourse. Many heterosexual couples in Christian marriages have sex lives that do not include vaginal intercourse for reasons including family planning, injury or just the comfort and enjoyment of one or both parties. To discount these encounters as anything less than God given, sexual blessings is to discount the beautiful workings of our created bodies. If one's argument against homosexuality is also an argument against fellow heterosexual Christians, it’s not much of an argument.

Mara Joy Norden
November 20, 2013


I appreciate your gracious engagement on this. Here's my response to your question.

Yes, in my mind, the full inclusion of women in church leadership and full inclusion of LGBT folks in church leadership are connected. The connection is not logic, but exegetical method. You and I both come to a reading of the Bible that welcomes women into church leadership through, as you said, reading the "full historical, cultural, and literary context" of the scripture. That is also how I come to a reading of the BIble that welcomes LGBT people into church leadership.

The sticky texts calling out same-sex sexual encounters as sinful were written for people whose contexts did not include gay and lesbian (let alone bisexual or transgendered) living in faithful, committed, monogamous relationships. Brownson states in his book that extensive study of non-biblical historical texts has concluded pretty much without a doubt that such a thing just did not happen in the areas to whom Paul was writing. So when Paul called same-sex sexual encounters "unnatural" and "shameless" in Romans 1, he is not calling gay sex between committed partners a sin. He is speaking of sex acts I think we both would call "sin" - saying things with your body that you're not saying with your life. (Another Brownson phrase, though I'm not sure it's in the book.)

So, to sum up, welcoming women into church leadership and celebrating healthy, committed, same-sex relationships are definitely connected in my mind because I apply the same exegetical method to both groups of texts.

What do you find when you apply this exegetical method to the texts speaking of same-sex sexual encounters?

Joel Anderle
November 21, 2013

Hello Neighbors,

Thank you, writers, for writing. Thank you, commenters, for making this a bigger conversation.

To respond, Prof. Parler...
On words and their loaded significance: I disagree. I can't jettison these terms from this conversation. I don't think they're prejudicial. They seem, in fact, germane to Prof. Brownson's project. What is not germane is tying including pedophilia or polygamy to including same-sex relationships as you've done. Prof. Brownson is not arguing for reframing the conversation on including polygamists nor pedophiles. He does argue for a method that calls for a contemporary, connected argument which allows us to reframe the debate with Scripture, theology, logic and ethic which speaks to our human sexuality today (and would refute polygamy and pedophilia)-- which he then offers.

For the sake of argument, if someone asked you (as you hypothetically suggest) why you don't include polygamists, I presume you could use Dr. Brownson's book as a fine starting point on disconnecting Biblical witness and the covenant demanded by bodily human sexuality today.

And, if, in fact, someone challenged your lack of inclusion of pedophiles, Dr. Brownson's book would be a super support to nuance the global ethics and theology of human sexuality, power, gender, and violence.

On your arguments with Prof. Brownson's book...
I don't read Dr. Brownson as divorcing bodies from sexuality, or sexuality from procreation; I think his book is gloriously unitive. Also, I disagree with your comments on the Hebrew and your exegesis of Gen 1 and 2. Respectfully, Prof. Walton, as you quote him, seems to be infusing "tov" with functionality. "Tov," while polyvalent as so many ancient words, doesn't easily bear function for production in a translation. It would also be confusing if God goes on to provide an "eizer" which is not a "baby maker" but rather "helper" or "soul mate."

On "be fruitful and multiply": God says that in Gen 1 not Gen 2. Gen. 2 and God's attention to relationship is Prof. Brownson's book's concern. But again, for the sake of argument, right after God mandates multiplication in Gen 1, there's no multiplication until after the fall. As I am sure you know, there's a conundrum about whether multiplication was a plan of God's for Eden or not. Was God looking beyond the Fall in God's mandate? And, of course, we must ask whether multiplying biologically is God's first concern or is it secondary to a covenant relationship? Because, if it's just biological multiplying then we're stuck with Biblical witness of rampant polygamy as procreative production. I think, instead, Prof. Brownson's book does a magnificent job of considering the intertextuality of the Biblical witness, not just some of the words the Bible uses.

I liked CS Lewis's The Great Divorce. It's powerful in it's force of argument for a loving God who constantly wishes to save humanity from the foolish sins that would keep us from God. I do not think that Prof. Brownson's book is engaging in the divorces of sin you imply. Quite the opposite, Prof. Brownson's book reveals an understanding of God who urges Creation "higher up and further in."

Grace and peace to you all, in the name of our Holy God!

Branson Parler
November 22, 2013

Thanks for your thoughts on this. The difference for me is that Scripture clearly includes (and approves of) numerous examples of women serving as leaders, teachers, etc. Whether Miriam, Huldah, Deborah, Priscilla, Paul's many female co-workers, women are serving in positions of spiritual authority within the covenant community. Further, the Bible at numerous places subverts the patriarchal culture in which it is written, whether it is the mutual sexuality of 1 Cor. 7:1-4, or the command to educate women (1 Tim. 2:11), or the recognition that women can and should speak in the assembly of the church (when speaking in the assembly of the broader body politic was absolutely unallowed). Further, the text of Scripture nowhere actually prohibits women in office. I see 1 Tim. 2:9-15 as prohibiting women from assuming authority to teach if they haven't been trained. But that's an action, not an office. And it's not an absolute prohibition, it's one that, in principle, would apply just as much to men. So although women in office may not have been the norm in the early church, there is nothing in Scripture prohibiting it outright, and there are many examples of women in fact serving the covenant community through key roles of leadership.

Brownson's reading of same-sex sexual activity goes beyond this, because he must deal with commands that speak directly against what he's arguing for. If there were examples of proper same-sex relationships in Scripture (as there are examples of women in leadership), I would be more convinced. Further, Brownson's reading depends on there being nothing like our concept of same-sex orientation in their culture. On this point, I'm not convinced. For example, Plato's Symposium describes same-sex attraction in a way that is similar to our concept of orientation. If it's the case that there is something like that going on, then Brownson's case becomes much less sustainable.

Further, Brownson doesn't address some NT texts that do in fact speak to the issue (not to mention he doesn't really address the OT at all). When Jesus talks about marriage, he explicitly affirms one man and one woman for life. The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 explicitly affirms the matters addressed in Lev. 17-18 as referring to OT law that still pertains to both Jews and Gentiles.

One other note: most of Brownson's arguments are not new. They are anticipated and dealt with at length in Robert A. J. Gagnon's "The Bible and Homosexual Practice." Gagnon also draws from the literary, historical, and cultural context, but makes a very different case than Brownson. So the scholarship on this issue is not as clear as Brownson sometimes makes it seem.

Branson Parler
November 22, 2013

Joel, thanks for the response. I should clarify: I meant that inclusion is prejudicial in the legal or rhetorical sense; in other words, that it begs the question. To say that a position is right because it is inclusive simply begs the question. My point about polygamy, for example, is to simply to ask: how do we decide how to delineate the "kinship" relationship of marriage? In other words, why could this not hypothetically include three people who commit to live in this covenant and sexual relationship? I'm not sure that Brownson offers anything that says that's inherently wrong or out of bounds. If the underlying moral principle is that "kinship" marriage must be undertaken by consenting adults who freely give themselves to one another, then why is this limited to only two people? If you could help me see what specific text in Brownson speaks specifically to this, it would be helpful. But if he does exclude some who might practice this (and there are many, all over the world), then why call this position "inclusive"? Brownson's position includes those who adhere to its accepted pattern of moral logic, but then 'inclusive' loses its meaning because all communities are 'inclusive' of those who accept their pattern of moral logic.

Regarding the point about "good" being a functional term (from Prof. Walton): Walter nor I argue that the word "tov" should be translated "function for production." Rather, Walton's overall point is that when God says something is good, it's that things are functioning as they should, in part because the focus of the creation account is not on the "material origins" of reality but on the functional aspect of creation. Put it this way: if God brings Adam another male, would that man be a "helper" in the same way Eve was? No. I'm not reducing Adam or Eve or "helper" to "baby makers," but to cut it out entirely of the normative marriage relationship is to ignore the very first gift/command of God to humans in Scripture in Gen. 1:26-28. Again, I'm not trying to exalt procreation as the be-all and end-all. It's not a good above all other goods. But it does tell us something normative about human sexuality. Kinship marriage is actually supposed to produce kin.

Consider how the underlying moral principles here might be brought to bear on a pastoral concern: a couple struggling with infertility. If Brownson is right, then anatomical and biological sex differences have nothing to do with a normative vision for marriage, sexuality, or procreation. It's simply about faithful individual commitment, and so we learn nothing about what should be from the sex differences between male and female. Therefore, if a woman says, I have an innate longing for children and I struggle--spiritually, emotionally, mentally--with infertility, I'm not sure what Brownson would say. According to his argument, the fact that you have reproductive organs tells you nothing about the normative use of those, whether for sexual intercourse or the outcome of that--children. I'm sure Brownson would want to come alongside and give pastoral encouragement, but I'm not sure if his moral logic would allow him to say: "it's normal and natural to desire children; it's normal and natural because this is how God made us. There's a purpose and shape to our actual bodies, and when something doesn't go as it should biologically, we feel that ache as a whole person." Perhaps there are ways around that issue, but I'm not sure what they are, at least if we stick with his moral logic.

Hopefully this clarifies a couple points and contributes to the ongoing dialogue. Thanks for the interaction.

November 22, 2013

I saw this TC post and it spurred me to start reading the book. I have only read the first three chapters, and will read it all. That said, towards the end of chapter 3 Brownson states that "these studies are promising beginnings to a new chapter in the church's debate over same-sex relationships". I find the analysis lacking thus far.

Chapter one makes it sound like this book will be a dispassionate discourse on the relative merits of various scriptural interpretations. It seems rather promising. Chapter two quickly dispels this myth. For instance, the author says some would argue that there are no passages in Scripture that speak of a connection between biology and gender. Evidently he has not read the wisdom books...

The author spends an inordinate amount of time critiquing Gagnon's complimentarity, completely ignoring egalitarianism and other major views that do not condone same-sex eroticism. And to say that "gender complementarity is really more like a category under which a variety of forms of moral logic may appear" as part of an attempt to discredit traditionalist positions is specious. One could just as easily argue that revisionist positions are also "more like a category".

It appears from chapter three that the revisionist positions are almost entirely based on disagreement with complimentarianism. This rather diminishes the position of revisionists, as it does not address other traditional schools of thought which are not "pro-gay" either.

Brownson's supposedly objective critique of revisionist positions is summed up with one very minor point, that justice and love are not sufficient in themselves to develop a full sexual ethic from Scripture. Well thanks for that stunningly deep analysis of revisionist positions. This is his justification for the rest of his book, "a wider canonical exploration of biblical discussions of sexuality in order to develop a cross-cultural sexual ethic that may have relevance for gay and lesbian relationships today"? I am not optimistic.

November 22, 2013

It seems that for us as Christians, only one question regarding this issue needs to be answered: Is sexual activity between two people of the same gender sin?
The biblical answer is "Yes".
This is not based on anyone's personal opinion. Rather, it is based upon the created order instituted by God "at the beginning of creation" (Mark 10). This is where God set the standard for human sexual relationships. All other sexual relationships are measured against this benchmark. And it is crucial that we recognize this, because "sexual immorality" is one characteristic of those whose "place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur" (Rev 21:8). Furthermore Christ Himself has vowed to "fight against", "cast...on a bed of suffering", and strike dead the children of those who "mislead my servants into sexual immorality" (Rev 2:14-22). So this is nothing to toy with.
We must cling to God's Word in this area, or we will be completely in the dark. How can we be the "light of the world" if we join in affirming the "fruitless deeds of darkness"? (Paul uses this phrase shortly after warning us that among us "there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality" - Eph 5)
Homosexual behavior is sin for the same reason pre-marital sex, adultery, beastiality, pedophilia, polygamy, etc. etc. are sin: they all dishonor marriage, which "should be honored by all". God has promised to judge "the adulterer and all the sexually immoral" (Heb 13:4).
I like how Pastor Landegent describes the attempt to justify same-sex relationships:
"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."
As Christians we should be unashamed to hold up God's perfect moral standard, because if we refuse to warn those who are rebelling against God sexually, not only are they in danger of God's judgement temporally, but perhaps even eternally, as they go on oblivious of their sin and need for salvation. And we are culpable as well - either by our silence in the face of, or worse still by our active encouragement of, behavior which is an affront to the Holy God - a heinous sin which Christ spilled His precious blood to atone for.

Branson Parler
November 23, 2013

Whitney, I appreciate your comments, and I applaud you and your husband for your willingness to adopt. However, I'm not sure I'd agree with your final point. It's not clear why an argument speaking against some forms of heterosexual activity necessarily weakens the argument. In my mind, it helps to clarify the underlying moral logic against same-sex sexual activity. Otherwise, it appears to be an arbitrary "no" to any forms of homoeroticism and an arbitrary "yes" to any forms of heteroeroticism. You may not agree with the principle--that openness to procreation is an essential part of proper sexuality--but the fact that this might speak against certain forms of heterosexual activity is a weakness only if one presumes that any and all forms of heterosexual activity are inherently good. In my mind, clarifying this underlying moral logic is important, because too often Christians speak against same-sex sexual activity with no understanding of the underlying moral logic. Rather, they have a simplistic "God says no, so no" attitude.

Also, I would note that there may be, then, exceptions to this rule (for example, injury, discomfort, etc.). But then different types of exceptions would have to be considered and evaluated (for example, family planning based on a woman's health vs. family planning based on a lack of economic trust in God). To simply say that any and every form of sexual encounter is a "sexual blessing" makes sexuality purely a matter of internal and subjective intention, which would reduce any real discussion or argumentation about human sexuality impossible, for there would then be no common, shared, objective nature of sexuality, but merely what each person makes of themselves and their bodies.

Whitney H
November 26, 2013

Perhaps I should clarify that I am not trying to imply that "any and every form of sexual encounter is a sexual blessing". Sexual encounters that cause physical or emotional harm to a person are not a blessing to anyone involved.

My trouble was with this statement: “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.”

As many married, heterosexual couples find a unitive experience through the God given pleasures of what one might consider ‘sexual (fore)play’, I still fail to see how this is an argument against homosexuality. It seems to me that this is an argument against sex acts that cannot lead to procreation which (to my mind) is a different conversation.

Mara Joy Norden
December 2, 2013

Branson -

Yes, I am familiar with Gagnon's book and with the broader body of scholarship on this issue.

I have given much thought to your differentiation between "action" and "office" relating to the texts about women speaking in church. I have never heard this take on it before, and it seems quite compelling. But I don't buy it. How can you separate the action of speaking in worship from the office of leadership in the church? It's non-sensical. I think Paul actually meant to tell Timothy that women weren't supposed to lead in worship. So I don't think that Brownson's reading of same-sex sexual activity goes beyond what you argue for 1 Tim 2 about women speaking in worship in terms of arguing for things that the Bible explicitly prohibits. Plus, 1 Tim 2 explicitly affirms in the very next chapter that those in the office of bishop must be men just as you say Jesus affirms that marriage is between one man and one woman for life.

I also think the subversion of patriarchy in scripture is also related. God has a history of working through people outside the mainstream. Women, yes. Gays? Maybe. Who knows who might have been closeted in the Bible - it's harder to hide the fact that you were born a woman than that you were born gay. I have certainly seen enough contemporary gifted ministers who are gay and have faithful and fruitful ministries to believe that God loves and uses them.

You seem to be more willing to be exegetically open to texts about women in church leadership than about same sex sexual activity.

I will close by saying that I am willing to be wrong about the full inclusion of my LGBT friends who are seeking to be faithful to Christ just like me. I might be wrong, and I feel strongly enough to risk it. I hold the standard of love and acceptance higher than the standard of law or holiness. If I'm going to be wrong, I'd rather be wrong in the direction of offering too much love and acceptance than in the direction of too much condemnation.


Evan Kotecki
December 20, 2013

I would love to get thoughts on what you think of my view? It is only an opinion.

Homosexuality is often referred to as an act of sin. It’s hard for us to have compassion for others when we don’t understand their perspective. It's hard to not feel uncomfortable about something that you don't understand. I believe it’s the anxiety of LUST that the Bible teaches…but this has nothing to do with a sexual orientation.
We are all spirits of the Universe. We all have the ability to talk to our inner voice. We all have intuition. We all have God. The only thing that separates a man from a woman is the biology…not the soul. And if two souls find each other and are able to be intimate, loving and selfless to one another, regardless of sex, then couldn’t that be Lust conquered by Purity of Intent? Couldn’t this awareness of every human’s likeness help curb the pressures of society in fitting one person or the other into a category?

Silver lining:
When God told us to multiply we took it and ran with it. Now there are hundreds and millions of children that have little hope and bleak futures. If only there were more acceptance of same-sex marriages and equality then maybe there would be more healthy and happy homes for these kids to go to. Could it possibly be that humans are naturally evolving in order to take up the slack of our inability to provide for all of our children around the world? Could the idea of parenthood not be about procreation…but rather about taking care of those in need?

Being a man of faith and a follower of many religions for their beauty, I really enjoy this website and the outlook I see from great Christ followers. For we are all called to Love ☺

September 5, 2014

Branson Parler said, "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."

I checked the "Index of Scripture References" at the end of the book & it shows he addressed it twice, p115 & p117...

If it is a command about having children, then doesn't that mean all single people, including Jesus, are not living according to the command of God??

As my friend Nathan Campbell said, "I'm not really keen on defining marriage in terms of producing children though... I'm keen on defining it as a picture, affirmed and created by God, of the relationship between Jesus and the church. And seeing where we get to from there. The children bit kind of rules out (or devalues) marriage for people who know they can't have kids or for people beyond child bearing age."

David Greusel
February 9, 2015

I was amused, sort of, by Pastor Anderle's lovely thought "a God who is decidedly uncontrolled by humanity’s tastes." Because in the church, the debate about SSA/SSM is exactly that (or rather the opposite), a dogged effort to conform God to humanity's taste, which, at this moment in history, desires the church to affirm same-sex relationships, including marriage. If Pastor Anderle actually believed in a God who is uncontrolled by humanity's tastes, I suspect he would be on the other side of this argument. At least, that is the conclusion I believe one would reach by taking Scripture as it is written, without resorting to sophistry and special pleading.

Michael Bentley
April 17, 2015

In Reply to Rev Mara Joy Norden (comment #25103)
I'm sure you're mistaken in your hermeneutical link between women in ordained offices and full Church inclusion of unrepentant homosexuals. The CRC’s most vocal supporters of women in office assured us all that there could NEVER be a connection. ; )

Beverly Tromsness
July 25, 2016

Gender is a psychological term - not a Biblical term.

Clyde Baker
June 17, 2017

Nice to read serious and civil discussion on this. I suppose as PCUSA, I'm on the left end of Reformed, but still, I hope I can offer a thought that may be useful--I don't think it is sufficient to define sin as simply and solely that which the Bible prohibits. To be a sin it has to have a harmful effect on self or others or both. As far as I can tell, looking back through history, all the 'sins' that were actually harmless eventually lost their 'sinfulness'--racial intermarriage, long hair, rock and roll, moderate drink, that thing about going blind, etc. It's a long list. At the same time, a lot of things that were deemed 'not sins' were eventually defined to be such, polygamy, slavery, whipping, etc. Another long list. Using that guidepost is not acceding to modernity. It is, instead, listening to the Holy Spirit as we come to a better understanding of where the Bible is pointing us. It really isn't that hard to see that a life-long relationship of fidelity, honor, and support centered in Christ is a marriage--gay or straight.

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