It’s Complicated

Robert Brownson was a professor of New Testament who had taken what he calls a “moderate traditional position” on biblical teaching about same-sex sexuality. But his thinking on the topic was challenged when his eighteen-year-old son revealed that he thought he was gay. As Brownson considered his previous views in relation to a person he knew very well, those views came to seem to him shallow and unhelpful. In the end he wrote a book in which he did a major rethinking of biblical teaching about gender and sexuality.

Brownson is not unique in revising his stance on this issue. Others who accept the Bible as divine revelation have done so as well, often in response to personal experience with friends or relatives who are sexually attracted to members of the same gender. Most people who alter their understanding of what the Bible teaches don’t have the skills or the time to write a serious book on the topic. But in our time, there are plenty of people who both identify as Christians and reject a blanket condemnation of same-sex sexuality. Some of these people are members of churches that welcome everyone regardless of sexual orientation.

Some Christians find such a stance incomprehensible. It seems to them that the Bible unequivocally condemns same-sex sexuality, and they can’t see how anyone who accepts biblical authority could think otherwise. The underlying assumption of those who take this stance is typically that determining what the Bible prohibits or allows isn’t complicated. It’s just a matter of honestly reading what the texts say. Regardless of where one comes out on the issue, I think that there are reasons to think that deciding how various biblical prohibitions apply to us can involve significant complications that a serious inquiry cannot avoid.

First, it can be difficult to determine what biblical instructions are applicable to all people universally and what instructions reflect cultural assumptions that do not have normative force for us. When Paul (in I Cor. 11) says that it is degrading for a man to have long hair and characterizes this conclusion as something that nature teaches us, we might justifiably wonder whether this teaching expresses particular cultural assumptions that have little claim as universal prescriptions. Similarly, many biblical scholars argue that some of what Paul says about homosexual activities is significantly shaped by cultural assumptions about gender roles that are at least open to question. While it doesn’t seem surprising that a biblical writer would think in terms of cultural views of the time, recognizing this fact gives us reason to consider when we should receive a biblical instruction as divinely revealed truth about what we should or shouldn’t do. 

Second, to understand some biblical prohibitions, we have to think about the reasons they are given, and sometimes there is room for dispute about what the reasons are. Some prohibitions are connected with maintaining ritual purity. Some are about staying away from practices that are connected with other religions. Some are about not bringing disrepute on the Christian community by violating standard social norms. Different assessments of what is intended lead to different views about whether an instruction should be understood as universally applicable or is better understood as an instruction about how to achieve a particular limited purpose that may not apply to us

Third, some biblical commands or prohibitions seem morally deficient. One example (among many) is biblical instructions about slavery. In the world in which biblical writers lived it was accepted that some people were slaves and others were masters. There are biblical commands about how masters should behave in relation to slaves, but these commands take for granted the legitimacy of systems in which some people have ownership rights over others. Many of our ancestors understood these texts as teaching that slavery was a divinely authorized practice. Christians in the nineteenth century who rejected the practice did so by overruling some biblical texts by general ethical teachings, such as the teaching that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. If we think of biblical revelation as a process in which more limited understandings are sometimes corrected by better understandings that were not available at the time, we can see the need to reconsider teachings that seem morally deficient. But to do so means recognizing that what a particular text says may not be the final word on the subject.

Fourth, it is sometimes questionable to apply what a biblical writer condemns to a contemporary practice that differs from what that writer was addressing. For example, many biblical interpreters think that New Testament references to same-sex acts were primarily about acts by people with wealth and power in relation to slaves or prostitutes. Even if the reference is broader, portrayals of the time tend to conceive same-sex sexuality as acts of people who have heterosexual desires, but seek out additional, more exotic, sexual outlets. In other words, these accounts didn’t consider what we now call sexual orientation toward members of the same gender, and the authors weren’t imagining the kind of committed relationship between same-sex couples that some Christians now defend.

Complications do not mean that we can’t use the Bible for ethical guidance, but they do mean that we need to be cautious about potential misuses. Finding a particular text that seems to suggest an ethical conclusion is often just the start of serious biblical interpretation.


For a fuller discussion of this issue, see chapter 8 of Changing Your Mind Without Losing Your Faith (Ethics and Culture).