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Book review: Bible, Gender, Sexuality by James V. Brownson

There are many books around these days written by apologists for a Christianity that teaches that homosexual relations are not necessarily sinful. But this particular book caught my attention more than others, because it’s been used by Matthew Vines as a key tool in his Reformation Project. Having invested many hours looking into whether Vines’ previous work was Biblically compliant, I was interested to find out what this book, by an author he endorses, has to say. Vines has reportedly said of the book –

Robert Gagnon and others have argued pretty influentially that [the Biblical concept of one flesh] is all about intercourse—male and female anatomy coming together as half of puzzle and when they come together the puzzle is complete. Two men or two women don’t fit together in the same way so they can’t form a one-flesh union. Last year, a book by a Reformed New Testament professor named James Brownson at Western Theological Seminary in Michigan took on that entire argument and very graciously tore it to pieces. This is an extra-biblical idea that one-flesh is about how anatomy fits together. He argued that one-flesh is really about the relational kinship bond created between two people in marriage and how anatomy fits together is not on the radar at all. There’s no reason then for a one-flesh marriage to involve different anatomy at all. So, there really are nothing essential to marriage in the Bible that could not include same-sex couples because marriage is fundamentally about keeping covenant with one’s spouse in a one-flesh bond.

(BTW: authorities such as George Guthrie have rejected this view of “one flesh”). Dr James White has said that Vines seems to use Brownson as his primary source for his own book. Unsurprisingly, White is not a supporter, as he expresses in this segment of his show –

Another gay activist/theologian wrote of the book; “The best single recent book both on the biblical material and the hermeneutical issues facing the church today“. If you havent read the book, the following clip of Brownson preaching is a good representation of its contents: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1f0KD-B0Z8

I read the 300 page, thoroughly referenced, soft cover book, slowly and carefully. Its author, James V. Brownson, is a professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary, a school with a few hundred students, in Michigan. He is also an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America, a denomination that tends to be described as mainline, but which reportedly has much variation between member churches, from liberal to charismatic. In chapter 1 of the book, he refers to himself as being from the Reformed tradition, with a continuing “commitment to the centrality of Scripture” (p. 13).

On p.11 Brownson says he used to “take a moderate, traditionalist position” on homosexuality. Like many contemporary Evangelicals, he says he “made a sharp distinction in my earlier thinking between homosexual orientation (which my denomination had declared was not necessarily sinful) and homosexual behavior (which, I had believed, was forbidden by Scripture).” But then his 18 year old son explained that he believed he was gay. Brownson says this book arose from the study he did in response to that news. He writes that “The goal was not to justify a certain conclusion; rather it was discern, as best I could, the truth.” He says his research led him to see some of the exegesis in traditional positions, to be lacking, and ditto for some revisionist positions.

Perhaps one of the more striking elements of the book, is its critique of various statements from Gagnon, who has been widely recognised as the leading conservative academic on this topic. Sprinkle has reflected on this, commenting that;

James Brownson may have challenged a couple points in Gagnon’s work (re: gender complementarity and some other interpretations in Gen 1-2), but even if we say that Brownson is right on these couple points, there are dozens of other exegetical conclusions that he didn’t address or didn’t convincingly refute.

There has been no article/blog post from Gagnon on this as yet, as far as im aware, though he has presented a talk on Brownson et al. But Gagnon has responded a little as part of broader social media discussion and did mention on facebook that he planed to write a response to Brownson before 2014 is over. Gagnon has repeatedly commented, EG in May 2014, that –

Brownson is afraid to debate me in public; he has already turned down several opportunities to do so. He says that he doesn’t want to turn the issue into a “debate.”

In the meantime, it would be interesting to diligently go through Gagnon’s work to see for ones self whether Brownson really has proven Gagon wrong on the points raised.

Coming from an Evangelical perspective myself, and understanding Brownson to likewise be coming from a Protestant point of view, and that this was a book about homosexuality, my expectation was that the book would focus on and be structured around the classic passages from Scripture that speak to the topic the most directly. But my assumption was incorrect. Early in the book, Brownson writes that that traditionalists tend see the Bible as opposing all same-sex relations, because traditionalists read the Bible through a lens of “gender complementarity”. Brownson believes that gender complementarity is a false doctrine. Basically, Brownson claims that the doctrine of “gender complementarity” colours and distorts the interpretation of the Bible by conservative Christians, leading us astray from the true meaning of Scripture. This is arguably the primary theme of the book.

TrustGodWhat I suggest is the secondary theme to the book, he partially explains as follows; “We must discern the deeper and more comprehensive moral logic that undergirds the specific commands, prohibitions and examples of the biblical text. … this kind of exposition, building on underlying values, allows the extension of core principles of biblical commands or prohibitions into new terrain not directly addressed by the literal commandment. …” In other words, he seems to encourage Christians to base their theology and doctrines not simply on what Scripture says at face value, but to evaluate why it says it, and to use that ‘why’ as a guidepost or guiding principle. He uses the term “moral logic” frequently, and although I didnt notice him define it, he seems to use the term to refer to the structure or reasoning behind biblical morality. EG the question of why a given sin, is sinful, and in what circumstances it may not be sinful, etc.

And of course, both these themes, sound to be of noble intent. But it seems to me that Brownson’s detailed analysis and reasoning in various directions, obscure the basic facts of what the Bible actually says on the topic.

Brownson repeats the words “gender complementarity” again and again, arguing from various angles such as anatomically speaking and biologically speaking, that the concept is not found in the Bible. And yes, most translations do not use the term, and on some levels it’s true that its not in Scripture. But is the concept not there at all? It depends on how you define it. If you define it to mean that an average man and woman have a natural or God-ordained fittedness and pairing and that they work together well as life partners, to their mutual benefit, then the concept is there, to some sense in Genesis 2, in Matthew 19 and elsewhere.

And as for looking for “moral logic”, well this can be a problematic venture, even if well intentioned. EG back in the real world, I find it interesting reading how Julie Rogers changed her mind about whether same-sex marriage would be acceptable to God. You might say she her conclusion through “moral logic” perhaps. IE as she she says here, she decided that she couldnt see anything wrong with it. But by taking that stance, she has prioritised her own moral logic, her own reasoning, above Scripture. Because by saying yes to same-sex marriage, she is implying a yes to homosexual sex, which Scripture rules out.

My understanding is that the orthodox approach does not look for “moral logic”. As Gagnon has written about gay sex, “… to the Biblical authors … it was the act that counted most, not the reasons for doing it …” (The Bible and Homosexual Practice, chapt. 1, p. 109). The Bible does not always tell us the ‘why’ of its commands and prohibitions, and even when it does, the explanation can be very brief. Why does Jesus oppose divorce? Because God brought the married couple together, we are told in Matthew 19. Okay, and why cant that be reversed? We are not told. So all we can do is guess. And guessing is often what Brownson does in relation to the “moral logic” of the Scriptures that relate to homosexuality. They are often educated guesses, but he puts a lot of faith into his guess work. And he then places more weight on his guesswork than he does with the plain words of Scripture. This means that his guesswork then becomes his primary Bible. Here are some examples –

  • Referring to Romans 1, Brownson writes; “I contend, however, that the same-sex eroticism Paul envisions is either an expression of the monstrous ego of the Roman imperial house, or an expression of prostitution, child abuse, or promiscuity, an absence of mutuality, a neglect of the obligation to procreate, or a failure of persons to express with their bodies what they say with the rest of their lives.” (p. 261). In other words, Brownson doesnt know exactly what Paul is referring to. But by p. 267 Brownson is putting words into St Pauls mouth, claiming he simply believed what the surrounding culture believed. Conjecture, big time!
  • On p. 210, he says that for the biblical authors “To treat a man like a woman is still seen as a negative act that necessarily degrades the passive partner.” But there is nothing in the Bible that directly expresses that. Brownson is taking outside sources and reading them INTO the Scripture again. What’s worse though, is that in the paragraph that follows, he writes “… while these values surrounding honor and shame for men are clearly documented elsewhere in Scripture …”!!! Where??
  • Brownson states that “Impurity is thus marked in Romans 1:24 as it is everywhere else in Paul, by excessive lust and lack of self-restraint, which in turns leads to sexual immorality.” IE Brownson claims that because Rom 1:24 makes reference to ‘impurity’ and because impurity relates to “disordered attitude and disposition”, this means that what Paul was referring to as sinful in Rom. 1:24-27, was not the fact that they were doing gay things, but that they were engaging in excessive lust and lack of self restraint. So is he correct about the term ‘impurity’? Lets look at examples in the NIV: Rom. 6:19, 2 Cor. 12:21, Gal. 5:19, Eph. 5:3, Col. 3:5 dont clearly indicate what they mean by impurity, but give little evidence that it simply relates to “excessive lust and lack of self restraint” and would not pertain to gay sex. Eph. 4:19 seems to present impurity as an act! Furthermore Brownson seems to say in footnote 13 that to accept his premise, you need to downplay 2 Cor. 6:17, and perhaps regard it as non-canonical! There seems to be a lack of evidence for the argument.
  • On p. 197 Brownson presents theory as fact when he writes; “I noted in the previous chapter how Paul regards same-sex eroticism as the manifestation of out-of-control lust that is insatiable: not content with ‘normal’ sexual relations with the opposite sex, it is driven to more and more exotic and bizarre forms of gratification.” No we do not know that to be the case. It’s more conjecture.
  • On p. 251 Brownson writes that “the New Testament does not envision the kind of committed, mutual, lifelong, loving, moderated gay and lesbian unions that are emerging today.” This framing that always brings out a knee jerk reaction from me, of asking why would such relationships only ’emerge’ now? Why is it thought that they didnt emerge 2000 years ago? or 1000 years ago? And why are we talking as though gay and lesbian relationships will be lifelong, when that is so uncommon? Why do these words seem unlikely and not reflective of reality?  On p. 277 he writes that “Such same-sex intimate relationships were never considered by the biblical writers”. They may have not been specifically mentioned, but how does he know they were never considered? We know that over one thousand years ago, some had specifically ruled out same-sex marriage, which means the concept had crossed their minds. (See Against Apion, Book IIsection 25. The concept of a man marrying a man was also raised in the Jewish Babylonian Talmud of the 3rd to 5th centuries, in Chulin 92a, b).

In some sections of the book, Brownson sounds fair and balanced, but in other sections he sounds like a disingenuous overenthusiastic gay activist. He writes at the end of chapter 7 “…Paul explicitly urges those who cannot exercise self-control to get married.” Urges? I dont think it’s balanced to summarise Paul’s attitude towards it as “urges”. More like ‘allows’ (1 Cor. 7).

Along similar lines, on p. 280 Brownson is quick to dismiss relevant Greek words, eg from 1 Cor. 6, as referring to pederasty or male prostitution rather than standard homosexual relationships, despite reputable and popular Bible translations, concordances and lexicons, such as Strongs, informing us that they refer broadly to those whom today we call ‘homosexuals’.

Gagnon in October 2014

I also find it troubling that Brownson invests so much ink in attempting to refute a doctrine of gender complementarity – a doctrine that is really an attempt to explain what the Bible means, rather than something that is explicit in Scripture, yet he is comparatively dismissive of what are arguably more coal-face issues, such as interpreting 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 in light of homosexuals today. Brownson attempts to refute quite a number of arguments from Gagnon about gender complementarity, yet he makes no attempt to refute the 20 pages that Gagnon wrote that contradicts Brownson’s claim that these two NT passages refer to pederasty and male prostitution rather than to today’s homosexual relationships.

Doubt and questions may be raised about various details of various Bible passages on various levels, but overall, the message of the Bible on this topic is consistent, and each relevant passage contributes to the weight of the overall argument, to the point where the ultimate message of the Bible on this topic cant confidently be denied. John Piper for example, looked at the same question and his conclusion is the opposite of Brownson. Brownson wrote on p. 9, that “the meaning of Scripture for Christians today must be [sic] not be drawn from just one passage but from the way any particular passage of Scripture is located within the larger themes and movements of Scripture as a whole.” Yet the larger themes of the Bible show Christian relationships to be inherently heterosexual (Genesis 2Matthew 19) and imply those relationships to be exclusively heterosexual (Luke 14:26, Ephesians 5), and any form of same-sex eroticism is consistently portrayed as sinful (Leviticus 18, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10). Ultimately, Brownson does not comply with his own advice.

——

Update: In September, Gagnon began to respond, posting the following on Facebook;

“I’m now looking at some of the arguments made by James Brownson in his book “Bible, Gender, Sexuality” as regards the interpretation of the terms malakoi (“soft men)” and arsenokoitai (“men who lie with a male”) in 1 Cor 6:9, allegedly only referring to exploitative practices; also his reading of Rom 1:26 as allegedly having nothing to do with lesbianism. I’m literally stunned at how he has left readers completely ignorant about the multitude of arguments that I have raised against these claims. He also ignores arguments made by scholars who support homosexual unions but recognize the error in the kinds of readings that Brownson (in reliance upon others before him) adopts (e.g., lesbian NT scholar Bernadette Brooten’s arguments for why Rom 1:26 must refer to lesbianism and not some form of heterosexual immorality). In the next week or so I will be putting out some online pieces that show this. Given the weightiness of the counterarguments to his stance on these two texts, I can only gather that he didn’t disclose them in his book because he has no defense against them. And this certainly explains why he has refused to appear together with me on the same platform to discuss these issues.”

Further reading:

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2 Comments on “Book review: Bible, Gender, Sexuality by James V. Brownson”

  1. […] Anglicans Online; Kenetha Stanton, Christian Feminism Today; Wes Granberg-Michaelson, Sojourners; Stasis Online; Andrew Goddard, Fulcrum; Heath Bradley, The Sunday Drive Home; Wesley Hill, First Things; P.OST; […]

  2. […] here. In smaller roles were others with poor theology whose work we have also critiqued, such as James Brownson, Justin Lee and Susan […]


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