Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Disputable Matters

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Disputable Matters

Article excerpt

Five books that are changing the evangelical discussion about LGBT Christians and the church * by da vid P. Gushee

Evangelical Christ ianity has changed significantly over the last 40 years on issues of gender, race, and nation. But until now it has not changed on homosexuality. Until the last five years, any self-identified evangelical Christian (in the United States, at least) suggesting that Christians might need to change some aspect of their teaching about same-sex-oriented people and their relationships has been (metaphorically, so far) banished by the evangelical community.

But that reality has begun to shift. Five books, all published in 2013-14, represent the newest wave of U.S. evangelical reflection on LGBT matters. Evangelical New Testament scholar James Brownson published Bible, Gender, Sexuality in February 2013. Vineyard pastor Ken Wilson unveiled A Letter to My Congregation in February 2014; Matthew Vines posted God and the Gay Christian last April; Wendy VanderWal- Gritter's Generous Spaciousness came out in May; and evangelical Presbyterian Mark Achtemeier released The Bible's Yes to Same- Sex Marriage in June. And my own Changing Our Mind came out in October.

Brownson's work reveals that at least some of those who tackle questions about LGBT people and evangelical Christianity are scaling the great mountain of biblical scholarship and related literature on sexuality. In an early chapter he takes on in a broad way "traditionalist" Christian scholarship, notably in the work of Robert Gagnon, a mainline conservative at Pittsburgh Seminary. Gagnon's primary claim is that the Bible's consistent message about sex reveals a God-given design in creation (Genesis 1-2) involving physical/biological sexual complementarity between male and female. Gagnon argues that this creation theme underlies Paul's condemnation in Romans 1:24-27 as well.

Brownson, a professor at the Reformed Church in America's Western Theological Seminary, takes on Gagnon's approach. Through very careful research on both Genesis 1-2 and echoes later in scripture, Brownson shows convincingly that the Genesis texts do not emphasize physical/ biological complementarity between male and female, in any of the forms argued by traditionalists, but instead the similarity and equal value of male and female. He suggests that Genesis 2:24 ("one-flesh") is really about the forming by two of a binding kinship relationship, and not about anatomical fitting together in the sexual act.

Brownson then examines the relevant biblical passages and underlying "moral logics" shaping the Bible's texts on sexuality. He does this through his own original research and digging in the best of biblical scholarship, as well as sufficient reading in contemporary Christian sexual ethics and the literature related to LGBT matters. It is an extraordinary achievement. Brownson identifies the themes of patriarchy (and an egalitarian strand in scripture), the meaning of "one-flesh," the role of procreation in sexual ethics, and celibacy as central to Christian sexual ethics, carefully reporting on ancient and biblical understandings and then attempting to make a leap across cultures to consider their applicability in our own time.

In the end, Brownson offers a book that graciously reports the traditionalist position but very carefully breaks with it and shows the reasons why. This book is the achievement of a lifetime, in my view the most important work any Christian scholar has contributed to the recent conversation.

MARK ACHTEMEIER IS another senior leader in U.S. Christianity, this time in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He is a pastor and theologian who taught ethics for 15 years at Dubuque Seminary. Achtemeier notes that in the late 1990s he took the conservative position when his denomination was fighting over whether to permit the ordination of openly gay and lesbian ministers. But his opening line states, "This book is the story of a change of heart. …

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