Gagnon: Bridging the Bible and Gender Confusion, Part 1

Gagnon_review_06082015Robert A. J. Gagnon.  2001.  The Bible and Homosexual Practice:  Texts and Hermeneutics.  Nashville:  Abingdon Press. (Goto part 2; goto part 3)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

At one point in seminary I asked a professor [1] to outline the biblical case for gay marriage. He responded that the Bible did not offer a strong case for gay marriage; it was just the right thing to do. Evangelicals typically focus on his first point while progressives typically focus on the second point. Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice outlines a detailed interpretation of the Bible’s teaching on this issue.

Gagnon states his objectives as:

“to demonstrate two main points: First, there is clear, strong, and credible evidence that the Bible unequivocally defines same-sex intercourse as sin. Second, there exist no valid hermeneutical arguments derived from either general principles of biblical interpretation or contemporary scientific knowledge and experience for overriding the Bible’s authority on this matter” (37).

Gagnon’s conclusion that the Bible treats homosexuality as sin[2] (a theological statement) should surprise no one, but it is not obvious how the church should respond to it (a problem in ethics). Theology is easy because a statement is either true or not; ethics is hard because it necessarily involves trade-offs between multiple theological principles in tension. We are all sinners and stand in need of God’s grace.  This implies that no sin is unforgivable and we are to share the Gospel with everyone.  But, how do we properly love the unrepentant sinner?  And, what is special about witnessing to someone struggling with gender confusion?  These are not hypothetical questions.  Unfortunately, the postmodern church (like the church at Laodicea) has often neglected to teach the doctrine of sin which leaves it with scarce moral authority to provide advice on any particular sin (Rev. 3:14-19).

Gagnon summarizes his book with 4 reasons “why those who engage in same-sex intercourse act contrary to God’s intentions for human sexual relations”.  Those reasons (487-489) are:

  1. “Same-sex intercourse is strongly and unequivocally rejected by the revelation of scripture.”
  2. “Same-sex intercourse represents a suppression of the visible evidence in nature regarding male-female anatomical and procreation complementarity.”
  3. “Societal endorsement of homosexual behavior will only accelerate the many negative social effects [serious health problems, greater pedophilic behavior, erosion in expectations of marriage, annihilation of gender norms, and marginalization of those that speak out] arising from such behavior…”
  4. “The practicing homosexual’s own relationship with the Creator will be put in jeopardy.”

Gagnon’s argues these points thoroughly.  For example, in talking about the health effects of homosexual behavior, Gagnon cites[3] an unspecified health condition and lists all the possible negative consequences of this condition.  Reading about this list, one is suspicious that the condition is homosexuality—it is not—the condition is alcoholism.  The health consequences of homosexuality are much worse (471-473), including:

  • “A significantly decreased likelihood of establishing or preserving a successful marriage.
  • A 25-35 year decrease in life expectancy.
  • Chronic, potentially fatal, liver disease—infectious hepatitis, which increases the risk of liver cancer.
  • Inevitably fatal-immune disease, including associated cancers.
  • Frequently, fatal rectal cancer.
  • Multiple bowel and other infectious diseases.
  • A much higher than usual incidence of suicide.
  • A very low likelihood that its adverse effects can be eliminated unless the condition itself is.
  • An at least 50% likelihood of being eliminated through lengthy, often costly, and very time-consuming treatment.” (473)

Having worked in a hospital emergency room, this list is not surprising. I lost a pastoral mentor to AIDS as a young person and personally assisted a number of hospital patients suffering from problems on this list, including HIV, when I worked as a chaplain intern [4].  The Center for Disease Control estimates that more than half a million people have died from AIDS in the United States alone.  Meanwhile, more than a million people are currently infected with HIV [5].  Gagnon’s point is that the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality is of continuing relevance in postmodern moral teaching.

Ironically, pastors and churches that ignore people suffering from gender confusion (or, worse, condone it) are complicit in the Apostle Paul’s assessment in Romans 1:24-27giving them over to their ungodly passions. Gagnon compares homosexuality with alcoholism both because of the medical problems associated (including an addictive character), but also because recovery is difficult.  Clinical studies prior to politicization of the issue reported recovery rates of about 30 percent (28.8%), roughly on par with success rates reported by Alcoholics Anonymous (420-432) [6].  Recovery in this context means we are able to control our responses, not our temptations.

Gagnon is a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He has a master’s in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School and a doctor of philosophy from Princeton Theological Seminary [7]. The acknowledgments section of his book reads like a who’s who of evangelical scholars.  The Bible and Homosexual Practice is written in 5 chapters:

  1. The Witness of the Old Testament,
  2. Same-Sex Intercourse as a “Contrary to Nature” in Early Judaism,
  3. The Witness of Jesus,
  4. The Witness of Paul and Deutero-Paul, and
  5. The Hermeneutical Relevance of the Biblical Witness (5-10).

The introduction and conclusions are not numbered.  These chapters are proceeded by the acknowledgments and followed by both a topical and a scriptural index.

The response of the church to gender confusion is the defining issue of our day. Until the 1980s, no Christian denomination considered homosexuality acceptable behavior; now, many denominations, including my own, are having trouble establishing spiritual boundaries of any kind—the teaching on homosexuality stands out primarily in that it is the most obvious.  As a consequence,  Christians need to be aware of the arguments being made. In this debate, Gagnon’s research is an important resource.

Here in part 1, I have given an overview of Gagnon’s argument and highlighted health effects of homosexuality.  Christians more normally focus on scriptural arguments.  So, in part 2, I will survey his review of Old Testament passages on homosexuality and, in part 3, I will turn to passages on the New Testament.

 

[1] The professor was on the faculty at University of Dubuque Theological Seminary.

[2] For example: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Lev. 18:22 ESV)  Also: “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.” (Rom. 1:26-27 ESV)

[3] This reference is taken from Jeffrey Satinover’s “Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth” (Grand Rapids:  Baker Books, 1996).

[4] The issue of health effects relating to homosexual behavior was in the media only this morning (http://bit.ly/1RqrW7X).

[5] http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/statistics/basics/ataglance.html.

[6] Earlier I reviewed the story of a Lesbian conversion:  Butterfield Journeys from PC to JC (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-wj)

[7] http://www.RobGagnon.net.

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