Webb: Analyzing Culture

Webb_reviw_20210713William J. Webb.  2001.  Slaves, Women and Homosexuals:  Exploring the Hermaneutics of Cultural Analysis.  Colorado Springs:  IVP Academic [1].

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Toxic waste is a term once used in Washington to describe issues that could not be openly discussed without tainting the person discussing them.  High on the list of such issues were race, gender, and sexuality.  Hopefully, it is now possible to engage in reasoned conversation about these issues.  William Webb’s book Slaves, Women and Homosexuals:  Exploring the Hermaneutics of Cultural Analysis clearly attempts to begin that conversation.


Webb begins with a question and an answer.  The question is:  So how does a Christian respond to cultural change?  His answer is:  It is necessary for Christians to challenge their culture where it departs from kingdom values;  it is equally necessary for them to identify with their culture on all other matters (22).  The tough part arises in distinguishing:  between kingdom values and cultural values within the biblical text (23).   This is what Webb sees as the interpretative (hermaneutical) task.

Webb applies his hermaneutical framework primarily to 3 issues:  slavery, women, and homosexuality.  He picks slavery because he believes the issue to be settled within today’s church.  Clearly, the role of women and the issue of homosexuality are under active conversation—at least across denominations and, in some cases, within denominations.

Four Views on Women in the Church

Webb (26-28) defines these 4 positions as held on the role of women within the church:

  1. Hard/strong patriarchy—unilateral submission of women with an extensive power differential;
  2. Soft patriarchy—unilateral submission of women with a moderate power differential;
  3. Evangelical egalitarianism—mutual submission with equality of power between male and female; and
  4. Secular egalitarianism—equal rights and no gender-defined roles.

Three Views on Homosexuality in the Church

Webb (28) likewise defines 3 positions within the church on issue of homosexuality:

  1. Marital heterosexuality only—homosexuality is not an acceptable lifestyle for Christians;
  2. Covenant and equal-partner homosexuality—homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle for Christians provided that the partners are equal-status, consenting adults, and the relationship is one of a monogamous, covenant, and lasting kind; and
  3. Casual adult homosexuality—homosexuality is an appropriate lifestyle for any member of society provided it involves consenting adults.

In laying out these positions, Webb is simply defining the field of inquiry.  He is not at least initially advocating for any one of these positions.  Near the end of the text, however, he identifies himself as an evangelical egalitarian on women’s issues and argues for a marital hetersexuality only position with respect to homosexuality.

Redemptive-Movement Hermaneutic

An important contribution of Webb’s work is a concept that he calls as a redemptive-movement hermaneutic.  In defining this concept, he outlines a model:  X=>Y=>Z.  The X stands for the original culture;  the Y stands for scripture; and the Z stands for the ultimate ethic (30-33).  This model permits us to ask 2 important questions.  First, does scripture move beyond the cultures of surrounding nations in addressing an issue? (X=>Y)  Second, does scripture point to an ethic beyond that actually embodied in scripture? (Y=>Z)  These 2 questions allow us to isolate the redemptive movement implied in the text of scripture.  Webb uses this model to examine several scriptural passages that today sound bizarre, but which would have been at least slightly redemptive to the original audience.  One example was the taking of female prisoners as spoils of war:

“When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her. (Deuteronomy 21:10-14 ESV)

Attitude about Ugly Texts

Webb (32-33) argues that this is clearly an ugly text in today’s culture [2], but in relation to the customs of ancient times was redemptive in its application under the X=>Y criteria.

Today’s application of the text would not follow the exact words prescribed in the text, but rather to observe the redemptive spirit of the text and draft an appropriately redemptive, modern policy dealing with female captives (33).  Webb describes an attempt to apply the exact words of the scriptural text in a new context as a “static” interpretation (36-38).  Ignoring the redemptive spirit of the text leads to wooden or misleading interpretations and may lead to the text being discredited in the eyes of believers and non-believers alike.  Clearly, much more could be said about this redemptive-movement hermaneutic.


Webb writes his book in 8 chapters preceded by a foreword, acknowledgments, and an introduction and followed by a conclusion, 4 appendices, a bibliography, and a scriptural index.  The chapters are:

  1. Christian and Culture;
  2. A Redemptive-Movement Hermaneutic;
  3. Cultural/Transcultural Analysis:  A Road Map;
  4. Persuative Criteria;
  5. Moderately Persuasive Criteria;
  6. Inconclusive Criteria;
  7. Persuasive Extracriptural Criteria;
  8. What If I Am Wrong; and
  9. Conclusion:  Arriving at a Bottom Line.

The foreword is written by Darrell L. Bock of the Dallas Theological Seminary [3].


Webb’s Slaves, Women and Homosexuals is a readable and engaging text that focuses on applying scripture rather than simply arguing over it.  It is gutsy for a writer to take on the ugly texts of scripture and to find both redemption and application in them.  Personally, my initial response was to reject cultural analysis because it lies outside the twin authorities of scripture and God’s direct revelation.  However, I realized that I was guilty myself of discounting or skipping over the difficult texts rather than engaging them.  In effect, I was already doing cultural analysis, just not employing a consistent method.  This internal struggle led me to reconsider Webb’s analysis.

I am sure that some readers will simply not be able to engage in conversation about politically incorrect topics, but I would challenge them to stretch their own views a bit for the sake of understanding scripture better.  Webb’s own words are helpful when he says:  I must thank our modern culture for raising the issues addressed in this book.  But our cultural only raises the issues…it does not resolve them (245).


[1] http://www.tyndale.ca/faculty/bill-webb

[2] This exact issue was in the news this past week in the Middle East war in Iraq as ISIS fighters rounded up women hostages to the horror of the onlooking world.

[3] http://www.dts.edu/about/faculty/dbock.

Webb: Analyzing Culture in Scripture and in Life

Also see:

Wicks Seeks Availability Deepens Faith

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com


Continue Reading

Fortson and Grams: Bible Limits Sex to Christian Marriage, Part 2

Fortson and Grams, Unchanging WitnessDonald Fortson and Rollin G. Grams. 2016. Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition. Nashville: B&H Academic. (Goto Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The key theological challenge of our age is the lost sense of the transcendence of God. If God’s transcendence is no longer a lived reality, then Jesus was not raised from the dead (1 Cor 15:14) and he becomes a great teacher whose views on the authority of scripture (Matt 5:17-19) are downgraded to the status of nice to know, not a commandment. The moral teaching of the church is thereby easily waived off in favor the double-love commandment—love God; love neighbor (Matt 22:36-40)—and the first half of the commandment is held lightly. Soon, questions like—who are you to tell me who to love—make it clear that power politics, not scripture, has the last word in the church. Reading this line of reasoning backwards, the attack on orthodox faith (and its motivation) becomes transparent.

In part one of this review, I summarized arguments in Unchanging Witness by Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams. In this second part, I will delve more deeply into their arguments.


Fortson and Grams make it clear that questions about sexuality have influenced both biblical teaching and church practice throughout history. They write:

“…Jews saw the issue [of homosexuality] straightforwardly. Jews and Christians consistently taught that homosexuality acts were sinful, and they supported their views with the Scriptures. Both the Old and New Testaments, Judaism and early church, taught a consistent view on sexuality in general and on homosexuality in particular, clearly differing from the surrounding cultures. Debate over this matter in recent times is not due to fresh illumination of biblical texts that our predecessors misread; rather, it stems from our culture’s unwillingness to accept what the text clearly says.” (191)

Why Does the Book of the Law Highlight Sex?

For my part, I have always assumed that the clarity of scripture on the sexual behavior arose from the Hebrew experience of slavery in Egypt. Is it accidental, for example, that the very first Hebrew slave, Joseph, experienced sexual abuse? We read:

“So he [Potiphar—Joseph’s master] left all that he had in Joseph’s charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate. Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, lie with me.” (Gen 39:6-7 ESV)

Was Joseph a stand-in for a generation of sexually abused, former Egyptian slaves? The Genesis account chronicles all manner of sexual perversion, raising the possibility that Moses wrote the Book of Genesis to help the former Egyptian slaves overcome their own experience of abuse. Most likely they accepted Moses’ sexual ethic that differed radically from surrounding Canaanite cultures because they knew that accepting perverse sexual relations gave a green light to the rich and powerful in their abuse of those that were less fortunate. Former slaves apparently wanted normal family relations—marriage of one man and one woman—because it was something denied them for four hundred years.

The Sexual Ethic

Most commentators on the primacy of monogamous marriage (one partner in marriage) in the Book of Genesis cite two passages:

 “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27)

 “And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Gen 2:22-24)

Fortson and Grams then point out that the ideas about marriage presented in these two passages are then repeated in Genesis 5:1-1:

“When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created.” 

This repetition implies emphasis and the context is interesting because it almost immediately follows the account of Lamech, who murders out of revenge and is reported to be the first polygamist (Gen 4:34-35). In other words, Moses is reminding us that monogamous marriage is the standard and polygamists are known to be sketchy individuals.

Other sexual relationships that are prohibited later in Leviticus 18, including incest and homosexuality, need not have been be specifically itemized (although many are) because they deviate from the sexual ethic given in the creation accounts. The fact that the homosexual act is explicitly mentioned, prohibited, and treated as a capital offense for both participants (Lev 18:22) implies emphasis. The context placing it between a prohibition of child sacrifice (Lev 18:21) and of bestiality (Lev 18:23) underscores the unambiguous attitude towards homosexuality.

In Leviticus 18:25 these acts will make “the land became unclean, so that I [God] punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants” (Lev 18:25), a clear allusion to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by God himself (not Abraham and his private army) in Genesis 18. The example of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction has historically motivated cities to take a dim view of homosexual practices within their jurisdictions (69).

Early Church and Reformation Understanding of Scripture

These are starkly clear references. Fortson and Grams cite voluminous (three chapters, pages 27 to 91) early church reference and references all the way to the reformation that underscore how the church understood scriptural prohibitions of homosexual behavior in all of its manifestations. For example, Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John who was later martyred, wrote:

“Knowing, therefore, that ‘God is not mocked,’[1] we ought to live in a manner that is worthy of his commandment and glory… For it is a good thing to be cut off from the sinful desires of the world, because every ‘sinful desire wages war against the spirit,’ and ‘neither fornicators nor male prostitutes nor homosexuals will inherit the kingdom of God,’ nor those who do perverse things. Therefore we must keep away from all these things.” (31)

If homosexuality were unknown to the early church, as some homosexual advocates  have argued, then why would there be a need even to comment on it?

Likewise, the sin list in the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) repeats the prohibition of “homosexual perversion” (82) in question 87, a reference now translated as “unchaste person” in the official, PCUSA translation  (PCUSA, 2016).


Please refer to part one of this review for a general overview of the book and a discussion of my personal connections with this issue.

Fortson and Grams provide an important resource to the church and academy on the history of the church’s teaching on homosexuality. This book is of special interest to those new to the debate about the role of homosexuality in the church and those who take scripture as the sole authority for answering questions of faith and Christian living. Fortson and Grams focus on truth-telling. In this context love means accepting people as they are, but caring enough to help them to move beyond their fallen state (John 8).[2]


Campbell, W. P. 2010. Turning Controversy into Church Ministry: A Christlike Response to Homosexuality. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. (Review)

Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA). 2016. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Part 1 of the Book of Confessions. Louisville: Office of the General Assembly.

Polycarp. 1989. “Letter to the Philippians,” pages 125-126 in The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., translation J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, ed. Michael Holmes (orig pub 1891) Grand Rapids: Baker.


[1] Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” (Gal 6:7)

[2]Campbell (2010) sees Jesus’ attitude towards the woman caught in adultery as our template for ministry (John 8).

Fortson and Grams: Bible Limits Sex to Christian Marriage, Part 2

Also see:

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Transcendence_2018

Continue Reading

Interpreting the Bible 2.0

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith“Then the LORD God said, 

it is not good that the man should be alone; 

I will make him a helper (‎עֵ֖זֶר) fit for him.” 

(Gen 2:18 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

 In earlier reflections, I noted how important hermeneutics is to understanding scripture, distinguishing Christian groups, and sorting out controversies in the church. In this reflection I will give an example of how to interpret scripture focusing on just one verse, Genesis 2:18, cited above. In this verse, God talks about creating Eve and refers to her as Adam’s helper.

A Patriarchal Read?

Historically, Genesis 2:18 has been used to justify male dominance in the marriage relationship. This view has then been supported by pointing out that Adam named Eve, another sign of dominance, and in Genesis 3:6 Eve yields to Satan’s temptation, a sign taken as weakness on her part. 

An alternative interpretation notes that Adam and Eve are created together as a pair: So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27) Later, in marriage Adam is to give up his father’s household to live with Eve (Gen 2:24), which was not the typical custom among other people groups in the Ancient Near East. Further, if one reads the temptation narrative closely, Adam is standing next to Eve when she get tempted. If he is truly “the man of the house”, then why does he stand there mute while his wife is talking to a snake? Is the snake addressing the boss?

Key to this patriarchal interpretation is the word translated as helper (‎עֵ֖זֶר). While helper can sometimes mean a slave, more typically it refers to a higher status person or even God himself: “Behold, God is my helper (‎עֹזֵ֣ר); the Lord is the upholder of my life.” (Ps 54:4) Webb (2001, 128) writes:

“…a survey of the Hebrew world for ‘helper’ (ezer) should caution against using the word itself to support either position. When including both the noun and verb forms, there are about 128 occurrences int he Old Testament. The majority of uses (72%) are of superior-status individuals helping these of a lesser status. Yet, there are a number of examples where the ‘helper’ is either of equal status (18%) or of lower status (10%) than the one being helped…Only contextual factors beyond the word should be used to establish [status].”

Here we find that the original author, Moses, is unclear as to the intent of the passage. Readers of the passage are likewise divided. However, in scripture we find a clear statement by the Apostle Paul: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) While some commentators will debate Paul’s commitment to equality, his comments on family relations in Ephesians 6:1-9 completely undermined the patriarchal system of his time, when the father’s rights over women, children, and slaves were absolute. The early church functioned as a defacto family group (hence, terms like brother and sister used throughout the New Testament to refer to fellow believers) in which equality among the members was a dominant virtue.⁠1

The patriarchal position is harder to argue from scripture than male and female equality, especially in today’s cultural context. Mexican Christians will sometimes joke about two types of husbands: those that are happy and those who think that they are the boss!

Adam and Eve or Adam and Steve?

After many years of Evangelicals saying that God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, gay commentators began turning this argument around, albeit tongue in cheek.⁠2 If the Great Commandment (love neighbor, love God; Matt 22:36-40) is true and should be our ethical and interpretative guide as Christians as advocated, for example, by Jack Rogers (2009, 65) , then sometimes the perfect helper for Adam is truly Steve, not Eve. If Adam loves Steve, who is to say it is not so? After all, God had just introduced him to all the living creatures and birds of the air, looking presumably for a helper for Adam (Gen 2:18-20).

Why might we find this interpretation unconvincing?

Two prominent reasons suggest that this is a speculative reading. 

First, the author of the passage, Moses, uses these verses (Gen 2:18-20) as a foil to introduce Eve and Adam is happy with God’s new creation: “Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (Gen 2:23) The immediate context of the passage rules out any substitutes for Eve.

Second, if any confusion existed on how to interpret Genesis 2:18, then Leviticus 18:22 explicitly and unequivocally forbids homosexual relationships.⁠3 Because Moses wrote both Genesis and Leviticus, one would need to argue that Moses somehow disagreed with himself or changed his mind about the Genesis 2:18 passage, which seems unlikely. Looking to the New Testament for further guidance, the Apostle Paul refers to homosexuality and lesbianism both as a curse for having rejected God and his self-identification in creation (Rom 1:19-28). In this context love means accepting people as they are, but caring enough to help them to move beyond their fallen state as we see Jesus doing with the woman caught in adultery (John 8).

Why Bother Talking About Hermeneutics?

The point of these examples is to encourage Christians to take scriptural interpretation seriously. Weak or unusual interpretations typically either take scripture out of context or focus exclusively on a reader context. Considering also the author’s intent and the wider scriptural context generally provide a more balanced reading than  talking exclusively about “what scripture means to me” as a reader. 


Fortson, S. Donald and Rollin G. Grams. 2016. Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition. Nashville: B&H Academic.(Review)

Hellerman, Joseph H. . 2001. The Ancient Church as Family. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. (Review)

Rogers, Jack. 2009. Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.(Review)

Webb, William J. 2001. Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. Downers Grove: IVP Press.(Review)


1 This is an important finding, in part, because the prevailing interest among many writers today is to allege that the patrilineal kinship group model is used rhetorically to promote hierarchy at the expense of socially disadvantaged groups. Hellerman (2001, 221) disagrees writing:

“those who had the most to gain from the image of the church as a family were the poor, the hungry, the enslaved, the imprisoned, the orphans, and the widows. For brother-sister terminology in antiquity had nothing to with hierarchy, power, and privilege, but everything to do with equality, solidarity, and generalized reciprocity.” (221)

2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_and_Steve.

3 Fortson and Grams (2016, 251-258) discuss this issue of intent in Leviticus as interpreted in the New Testament at great length.

Interpreting the Bible 2.0

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Transcendence_2018

Continue Reading

Fortson and Grams: Bible Limits Sex to Christian Marriage, Part 1

Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness S. Donald Fortson and Rollin G. Grams. 2016. Unchanging Witness: Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition. Nashville: B&H Academic. (Goto Part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In 2010 as a seminary student, a pastor formerly associated with my home church wrote a book on his personal ministry to people trapped in a homosexual lifestyle and wanting out. He is a longtime friend and, because his publisher wanted reviewers, I volunteered to write a review. When I later inquired as to whether to publish this review in our presbytery newsletter, I got an icy response. Now eight years later, my friend’s church has long since left the denomination and my home church is in the final stages of leaving. The church’s attitude about homosexuality remains the most important theological question facing our generation and, yet, most Christians, myself included, flinch at bringing up the topic.[1]

In their book, Unchanging Witness, Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams write:

“…our chief concern is with those who identify themselves as Christians. Many contemporary discussions of homosexuality are based on broad assertion lacking substantial grounding in the texts of the Christian tradition. Our book is intended as a resource for those who hold the historical Christian position on homosexuality. What we offer is the combined perspective of a New Testament scholar and a church historian…”(xi).

Rollin is a personal friend and former New Testament (NT) professor of mine who remains on the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC with a lifelong commitment to reading ancient texts carefully.[2]Dr. Fortson is a professor of church history at the Reformed Theological Seminary, also in Charlotte.[3]

The task of reading church texts carefully is probably easier today than at any point in the past two thousand years. Ancient texts from libraries and churches around the world are now available online to virtually anyone who looks. However, in spite of technological advances and the scholarly horsepower to understand them, ironically biblical illiteracy plagues the church and careful scholarship does not always inform church preaching, teaching, and decisions.

Crisis of Authority

The real crisis, Fortson and Grams argue, is whether the church continues to view the Bible as authoritative. (168, 366) Why? They write:

“Our overview of texts has revealed that the Fathers, Reformers, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox church are unanimous in their condemnation of homoerotic behavior among those who profess Christ as Lord.”(376)

And each of these church groups base their position of homosexuality on the authority of scripture. In particular, their sexual ethic, drawn from both Old and New Testament texts, is summed up succinctly: “The place for sex was understood to be within marriage between a man and a woman.”(189) No other sexual activity, including heterosexual and homosexual sex, was permitted for the Christian, in spite of alternative cultural contexts, desires, and motives. The detailed documentation of this unusual unity of opinion among Jews and Christians in Fortson and Grams book is lengthy (385 pages) and repetitious because little disagreement existed (or exists) among orthodox believers.

In the Reformation, Protestant groups broke away from the Catholic Church over the authority of scripture arguing that the Bible was the sole of authority over matters of faith and salvation. In arguing from cultural experience and mores, liberal Protestant groups have ironically separated themselves from their own reformed tradition and reopened behaviors in the church that first led to the reformation. As Fortson and Grams observe, immoral behavior among clergy, including homosexuality, and the influence of humanism figured prominently in the decision of the Protestant churches to break away. (77-86)

Did God Really Say…

A key argument among homosexual advocates is that biblical authors and early church writers were unaware of consensual homosexual relationships as we see today and, as a consequence, biblical prohibitions against homosexuality were limited in scope to particular concerns, like pederastry (sex between an older man and a boy). Thus, consensual homosexual relationships were not in view, hence not proscribed. For example, Fortson and Grams (18) cite John McNeill (1993, xx) who writes:

“…You [traditional Catholic writers] continue to claim that a loving homosexual act is condemned in Scripture, when competent scholars are nearly unanimous in admitting that nowhere in Scripture is there a clear condemnation of sexual acts between two gay men or lesbians who love each other.” 

Implicit in these arguments is that the Bible did not limit sex to one man and one woman in the context of marriage, which would render such arguments moot by forbidding all other sexual relations. Homosexual advocates therefore start by denying the existence of a Christian sexual ethic and then move on to limit the scope of biblical passages mentioning homosexuality, recognizing that most pastors and Christians will not be able to follow the historical arguments or exegete the Greek and Hebrew on their own. This is the context—reviewing original historical documents and scripture—where Fortson and Grams’ analysis proves most beneficial.

Importance of the Debate

The silence of most Christians on the question of homosexuality comes at a cost. Since ancient times, a homosexual lifestyle has been known to shorten the lifespan of those who practice it. The CDC reports that AIDS has claimed over half a million lives in recent years[4]and AIDS is only one of the diseases (think hepatitis, social diseases …) transmitted by homosexual sex.[5]Homosexuality also raises the probability of suicide dramatically.

This problem has touched me personally. The pastor who recruited me in graduate school into youth ministry later contracted AIDS and died. If he had kept his marriage vows, he would probably still be with us. The idea that someone in the church recruited him into this lifestyle or inferred that yielding to his desires was okay robbed us of a much-loved pastor.


Part one of this review gives an overview of Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams’ Unchanging Witness. Part two will examine their arguments in more depth.

Fortson and Grams provide an important resource to the church and academy on the history of the church’s teaching on homosexuality. This book is of special interest to those new to the debate about the role of homosexuality in the church and those who take scripture as the sole authority for answering questions of faith and Christian living. Fortson and Grams focus on truth-telling. In this context love means accepting people as they are, but caring enough to help them to move beyond their fallen state (John 8).[6]


Campbell, W. P. 2010. Turning Controversy into Church Ministry: A Christlike Response to Homosexuality. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. (Review)

Gagnon, Robert A. J.  2001.  The Bible and Homosexual Practice:  Texts and Hermeneutics. Nashville: Abingdon Press. (Review, part 1)

McNeill, John. 1993. The Church and the Homosexual, 4th ed. Boston: Beacon.


[1]I bought my copy of Unchanging Witnessin 2016 when it was published. It is timely to review it now two years later because of the travails of my home church with this issue and my research needs in writing.

[2]http://www.GordonConwell.edu/online/Faculty.cfm. https://BibleAndMission.blogspot.com.

[3]https://www.rts.edu/seminary/faculty/bio.aspx?id=91. @sdfortson


[5]Gagnon (2001, 473) provides a long list of serious health problems associated with homosexual practice.

[6] Campbell (2010) sees Jesus’ attitude towards the woman caught in adultery as our template for ministry (John 8).

Fortson and Grams: Bible Limits Sex to Christian Marriage, Part 1

Also see:

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2018_Ascension

Continue Reading

Campbell Turns Gender Confusion into Ministry

William Campbell, Turning Controversy into Church Ministry

W. P. Campbell. 2010. Turning Controversy into Church Ministry: A Christlike Response to Homosexuality. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In 2012 during my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, I spent a lot of time in the emergency room (ER) of a local metro hospital. One afternoon the ER was packed and overflow patients were stationed on gurneys throughout the room. As I worked my way around the room, it became obvious that a patient on one of the gurneys with a friend in attendance wanted to see me.  So I wandered over to talk with him. I was not thinking about gender.

I asked—What brings you to the hospital today?  His answer caught me off guard—rectal bleeding. The shock on my face must have been obvious. Also obvious was the fear of death on the patient’s face. I should have probed into his demeanor—Was he perhaps concerned about HIV infection? Instead, I mumbled through a few pleasantries, offered prayer, and left. My lack of preparation for that hospital visit was clearly a lost ministry opportunity.

How do we properly minister to people caught up in gender confusion?


Bill Campbell’s book, Turning Controversy into Church Ministry, focuses on confronting our fears and offering Christ’s presence to broken people.  Campbell writes:

“This book is written to equip Christians and their churches to prove a Christlike response to homosexuality and to people who struggle with unwanted, same-sex attractions.” (7)

Woman Caught in Adultery

How does a pastor respond to someone seeking care for unwanted same-sex attractions? Campbell (11-12) starts with the story of the woman caught in adultery. Jesus asked:

“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? She said, No one, Lord. And Jesus said, Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”  (John 8:10-11 ESV)

Campbell notes two principles in Jesus response: grace and truth [1]. Jesus starts with grace—defending the woman against her unfair accusers [2] and refusing to condemn her [3].  But he also admonishes her: go and sin no more.  Campbell explains:

“Grace without truth pampers, confuses, and even deceives. Truth without grace cuts, wounds, and destroys…Salt is essential for the body, but separated into its two elements, sodium and chloride, it can be deadly.” (13)

He observes that the church has often reached out to those wounded by divorce, but has not done so with those that struggle with gender confusion (14).

Organization of Book

The book has three parts:

  1. Analysis: Your Church, Christs Body.
  2. Approach: Overcoming Controversy.
  3. Action: Building Ministry.

Campbell starts with the current status of your church and then provides information both scriptural and practical about the major controversies in church responses to homosexuality. He finally talks about the ministry challenges in ministry to homosexuals and provides links to ministry resources.

Classification, William Campbell, Turning Controversy into Church Ministry


Campbell’s guidance to churches is summarized in an interesting graphic (see right). He ranks churches based on their emotional response to homosexuality. Churches motivated by fear either blindly condemn or blindly embrace homosexuality. Churches motivated by apathy express support (or not) but mostly remain silent. Churches motivated by ministry remain biblically obedient but extend grace to those struggling with gender confusion, much like they would extend grace to alcoholics and other broken people (28-36). The ministry response that Campbell advocates is clearly neither common nor easy.

Campbell’s experience with homosexuality began with caring for his deaf son.  Being the rare pastor who could sign, he found himself intimately involved in the deaf community and their particular problems.  Deaf children often attend school in residual programs that leave them vulnerable to homosexual activity and exploitation (40).  He writes:

“The compassion of Christ begins to bloom when [church] members begin to understand that homosexual attractions are usually not chosen by those who experience them but are the fallout of a multiplicity of factors such as prenatal dispositions, sexual abuse, parental detachment, and same-sex rejection.” (38)

He learned that at homosexual temptations are rooted in isolation and rejection (46).


The treatment of the science of homosexuality in the media and among psychiatrists offers a cautionary tale.  Scientific studies have for the most part not been able to demonstrate a linkage between genetics and any behavioral trait in spite of great efforts to explain depression, gambling, propensity towards obesity and even criminal activity (83).  A genetic linkage to homosexuality has likewise never been demonstrated even though much of this research has been done by groups and individuals anxious to find this linkage (82-89).  Nevertheless, the media has consistently claimed linkages that the scientists themselves have not reported (83).  The strongest statement that can be made based on research (as of 2010) is that some people may have a  disposition that they may (or may not) act on—Campbell compares it to a general disposition towards intellectual pursuits (86).  By comparison, alcoholism has been shown to be inheritable at a rate of 50-60 percent—the comparable figure for homosexuality is 50 percent or less (87).  While the media has dramatically increased the visibility of homosexuality, the percentage reported in the population remains a low 2-3 percent (89).

An important part of the effort to mainstream homosexuality arose in changes in the treatment by psychiatrists.  Research before the politicization of homosexuality pointed to the “distant father/overclose mother” theory, sexual abuse, and sexual experimentation as causal factors for homosexuality (110-113).  In spite of research supporting these factors in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) voted after intense lobbying from homosexual groups to remove homosexuality from the list of psychiatric illnesses normally reported in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)  (106-107).  Because listing in the DSM is a prerequisite for insurance company reimbursement for treatment, this change lead to a dramatic decline in scientific research and treatment in the years that followed.  Unfortunately, homosexuality was dropped from the DSM for political, not psychiatric, reasons. Still, some practitioners continue to see patients (110-117).


Campbell sees ministry to homosexuals having 6 parallels to the efforts of Nehemiah to rebuild the city of Jerusalem, each having both an inner reality and outer focus:

  1. Motivation–Prayer;
  2. Vision–Leadership;
  3. Healing–Family values;
  4. Growth–Mentors and counselors;
  5. Support–Small group ministry; and
  6. Celebration–Outreach (153).

For example, Campbell notes that Nehemiah was a man of prayer.  Before approaching the king with his request to assist in rebuilding Jerusalem, Nehemiah mourned, prayed, and fasted (Nehemiah 1).  Opposition pushed Nehemiah closer to God (154).  The point here is that Campbell sees ministry to those challenged by gender confusion requiring a range of responses corresponding to a range of needs.


Bill Campbell is senior pastor of Hendersonville Presbyterian Church, Hendersonville, NC [4]. He speaks from more than 20 years of ministry experience dealing with homosexuality. He recounts stories of families and individuals that he interviewed who have struggled with unwanted same-sex attractions and overcome them. His personal interface with the gay community arose from both family experiences and from his own ministry in a church located close to an AIDs clinic. He is passionate about the Gospel and has a shepherd’s heart for those in need.


Campbell’s book is long overdue. From my own walk with the Lord, I was ministered to as a young person by staff and clergy who were later dismissed for gay relationships. In my role as clerk of session in my home church, I found myself whipsawed by church controversies over ordination standards with little guidance other than scripture and personal experiences. In ministry, I feel a need to be prepared both scripturally and practically for the challenges of helping broken people. Turning Controversy into Church Ministry has been a big help in overcoming my own fear of being faithful in this ministry.

Thanks Bill.

[1] Grace and truth are among God’s core values expressed in Exodus 34:6 immediately following the giving of the Ten Commandments. We know that these values are fundamental for God because they are repeated almost word for word in Psalm 86:15 and 103:8, Joel 2:13, and Jonah 4:2.

[2] The law is clear, both the man and woman who commit adultery are liable to be put to death (Lev 20:1).  The woman’s accusers obviously know who the man is and have hidden him from the law.

[3] Under the Mosaic law, at least 2 witnesses are required in a death penalty case.  By law, the witnesses must be the first to cast a stone (Deut 17:6-7). Perjury carries the same penalty as the alleged crime (Deut 19:15-19).

[4] http://www.hendersonvillepc.org.

Campbell Turns Gender Confusion into Ministry

Also see:

Gagnon: Bridging the Bible and Gender Confusion, Part 1 

Rogers Advocates for LGBT Equality, Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Continue Reading

Rogers Advocates for LGBT Equality, Part 2

Rogers_review_06162015Jack Rogers. 2009. Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality:  Explode the Myths, Heal the Church.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press. (Goto Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The single, most important organizational issue facing the Presbyterian Church (USA; PCUSA) in this generation has been the loss in membership. Since the merger of the Northern and Southern denomination in 1984, total membership has declined from 3,100,951 in 1984 to 1,667,767 in 2014 [1]. This is a loss of about half (46%) in 30 years or an average of 1.5 % per year [2]. Because the primary evangelism practiced in the PCUSA is with our own youth, slowing the departure of young people from the church has been an obvious, but unattended priority [3]. So what was PCUSA leadership doing while this was going on? Part of the answer is the subject of Jack Rogers’ book, Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality [4].

What was the biblical warrant for the priority given in the PCUSA  to gender confusion?

Bible Passages Pertinent to Homosexuality

Rogers (66) lists 8 biblical texts that get the most attention in debating homosexuality:

  1. Genesis 19:1-29 (Story of Sodom and Gomorrah).
  2. Judges 19:1-30 (Rape of Levite’s concubine).
  3. Leviticus 18:1-30 (law).
  4. Leviticus 20:1-27 (law).
  5. 1 Corinthians 6:9-17-17 (vice list).
  6. 1Timothy 1:3-13 (vice list).
  7. Jude 1-25 (unnatural relations). and
  8. Romans 1 (new covenant rejected).

To this list, Rogers (86,128-136) adds several other passages which he sees as biblical analogies, including:

  1. Acts 10-15 (acceptance of gentiles).
  2. Luke 10:25-37 (good Samaritan).
  3. Matthew 19:10-12 (Jesus on marriage).
  4. Acts 8:26-39 (Ethiopian eunuch).
  5. Isaiah 56:4-5 (Eunuch’s acceptance).

Most authors start a conversation of homosexuality with a discussion Genesis 1-3 because the Bible’s discussion of sexual relations from that point forward assumes monogamous heterosexual marriage is the exclusive model for sexual relationships. This is why, for example, polygamous marriages are never raised up as a Biblical standard (even if tolerated by ancient society) and homosexuality is later condemned as sin (Lev 20:13).

Biblical Model for Marriage

The modeling of monogamous heterosexual marriage in Genesis is obvious and has always been the focus of church moral teaching.  A creator God creates Adam and Eve in His image (Gen 1:27) and immediately tells them to continue His work of creating (Gen 1:28), which heterosexual sex makes  possible (Gen 2:24). Sin arises when the woman believes a talking snake’s word over God’s word (Gen 3:1-6).

Intensification of Sin

This story of original sin is followed by stories of intensification of sin—Cain’s murder of his brother (Gen 4:8) and Lamech’s introduction of polygamy (Gen 4:19; Feinberg 1998, 30). The story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19) can accordingly be thought of one of these examples of intensification of sin.

This intensification of sin is evident both because the story follows a sequence of increasing greater sins in the Genesis accounts culminating in Noah’ s flood where  God brings an apocalypse of water.  Why?  Because of sin (Gen 6:5-7). Modeled on the flood, God then destroys the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah through fire.  Why?  Again, it is sin (Gen 18:20). God’s judgment is reserved for especially egregious sins.

Rogers Response to Traditional Reading

Rogers disputes that Genesis 1-3 lays out monogamous heterosexual marriage as a model (83). Stripping out the biblical model of marriage throws the interpretation of the later passages that deal with homosexuality into confusion.  In general, he tip-toes around the problem of sin.

Sodom and Gommorrah

For example, taking the story of Sodom and Gomorrah out of context Rogers views the story primarily as a problem in inhospitable behavior towards a traveling guest.  He argues this interpretation because “in the ancient world homosexual rape was a traditional way for victors to accentuate the subjection of captive enemies and foes” (67) However, this sociological interpretation is contrary to the tradition of scripture.  For example, in Ezekiel we read:

“As I live, declares the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.” (Ezek. 16:48-50) [5]

Two things about this passage stand out.  First, the word abomination stands out here because it normally evokes the Mosaic law (Lev 20:13) where homosexual sin is condemned and subjected to the death penalty.

Second, the women of Sodom (as well as the men) are involved in this abomination. The involvement of women is important because Rogers argues that the men  of Sodom were just establishing male dominance in the Genesis account, not engaging in homosexual activity [6]. Because woman do not normally use sex to establish dominance, the usual biblical interpretation is that we are seeing the sexual perversion of both genders in Sodom and Gomorrah. This point is reinforced in the New Testament where we read:

“just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.” (Jude 1:7 ESV)

There is no reason to appeal to extra-biblical arguments, as Rogers does repeatedly, when the biblical text itself is clear.  [7]

God’s Role in Sodom and Gomorrah

In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, it is important to understand that God himself destroys the cities.  If their destruction expressed a cultural bias, Abraham had ample opportunity to destroy the cities  when he captured them as a prize of war in Genesis 14.  He did not.  In fact, Abraham later interceded with God (an example of prayer) for the cities in Genesis 18:25-33.  Abraham’s behavior is an important object lesson for us.  We are to pray for those caught up in sin and leave judgment to God.

Holiness Code

How does Rogers deal with homosexuality in the holiness code of Leviticus?

Rogers cites 3 reasons for the holiness code focusing on the need to maintain ritual purity:

  1. Israel needed to distinguish itself from neighboring nations in order to survive.
  2. Mixing with other people or adopting their customs threatened purity.
  3. Male gender superiority had to be maintained. (68-69)

Rogers sees both Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 fitting into this cultural critique, but the Bible focuses on ritual purity as being modeled after God’s immutable character:

“For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” (Lev 11:45 ESV)

God’s immutable character also informs Jesus’ comments about the human heart. Jesus said:

“But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” (Matt. 15:18-19 ESV)

The expression, “out of the heart,” means feelings and emotions, and it implies that Jesus was suspicious of such motivations [8].  By contrast, Rogers abrogates these verses because they are inconsistent with the double love command (Matt 22:36-40) and—like the holiness code itself—they are an example of culturally conditions laws (69).  Using a general principle (double love command) to abrogate a specific command (prohibit homosexuality as sin) does have biblical warrant, but primary example in Genesis 3:1 is criticized as satanic.[9]  In any case, the church has historically abrogated the ceremonial codes in Leviticus, but not the  holiness codes which form the basis of much of the Apostle Paul’s moral teaching.

Roger’s Interpretation

Much more could be said about Rogers’ arguments about homosexuality. However, his frequent use of cultural arguments generally focuses not on what the Bible says, but why he thinks the Bible says it. He then questions the motivation of the biblical author and those that disagree with his interpretation. It is hard to reconcile this sort of rhetoric with a high regard for scriptural authority, on which he professes to be an expert (7-8).

Although I disagree profoundly with the argumentation and conclusions of Jack Rogers’ Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality, he does a better job than any author I know of chronicling recent changes in the PCUSA. Unfortunately, the changes that he has advocated have led even more rapid decline in denomination membership than in previous years and, as a parent of kids struggling to believe, I grieve the denomination’s insistence on majoring in minors rather than preaching, teaching, and supporting the Gospel.

Nevertheless, in Christ we are never without hope.  Consider this verse:

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb 4:15 ESV)

This verse is a personal reminder that we all struggle with sin.  The irony is that the church offering the most healing [10] may not sing the sweetest siren song [11].

Soli Gloria Deo


[1] Total U.S. population grew from 225 million in 1980 to 309 million in 2010 or 36 percent or about 1.2 percent per year (https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Demographics_of_the_United_States).  This implies that PCUSA membership has fallen even as population has increased.  This trend would be considered  a stunning failure in top leadership in any other organization.

[2] The rate of decline in membership in the PCUSA has been accelerating in recent years and jumped from 3.29 percent in 2011 percent to 5.26 percent in 2012 with the passage of provisions encouraging the ordination of homosexuals. See:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presbyterian_Church_(U.S.A.)

[3] The aging of the membership underscores this assessment.

[4] Kinnaman (2011, 21) provides a research-based exploration of the dropout of our youth.  He sees the core problem as a “disciple-making problem”.  A distracted church is unlikely to spend the time necessary to make disciples or to commit resources to making it happen.

[5] The parallel between Ezekiel’s characterization of Sodom and Gomorrah and postmodern secular society is most striking.

[6] The rape of Levite’s concubine in  Judges 19:1-30 is a parallel passage.

[7] Solo Scriptura—in God’s economy all knowledge is God’s knowledge, but the only authority for matters of faith in the reformed tradition is scripture.

[8] Elliott (2006, 264) studied the use of emotions in the New Testament and concluded:  “Emotions are a faithful reflection of what we believe and value.”  Jesus’ teaching about the heart and suspicion about emotions suggests that the underlying problem of sin motivated his teaching.  This is why Paul could write: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures…” (1 Cor 15:3 ESV)  Atoning for sin was at the heart of Jesus’ ministry both on earth and post-resurrection.  This is why the Gospel requires both truth and grace (John 8:11).

[9] The passage reads:  “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, Did God actually say, You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?” (Gen. 3:1 ESV)  Satan infers from a general principle (any tree) that it is okay to eat from a specific tree (the tree of knowledge) which is, of course, not what God said.

[10]  Each time we mourn a loss, we have to make a decision.  Do we lean into our pain or do we lean on God?  (Matt 26:36-44) Our identity is defined by the answer we give to this question each and every time.  Healing arises when our identity is in Christ, the Great Physician.

[11] “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (2 Tim. 4:3-4 ESV)


Elliott, Matthew A. 2006. Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel.

Feinberg, Jeffrey Enoch. 1998. Walk Genesis: A Messianic Jewish Devotional Commentary. Clarksville, MD: Lederer Books.

Kinnaman, David. 2011. “You Lost Me:  Why Young Christians are Leaving Church…” Grand Rapids:  BakerBooks.

Rogers Advocates for LGBT Equality, Part 2

Continue Reading

Rogers Advocates for LGBT Equality, Part 1

Rogers_review_06162015Jack Rogers. 2009. Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality:  Explode the Myths, Heal the Church.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press. (Goto Part 2).

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA; PCUSA) approved ordination of homosexuals in 2012 and gay marriage in 2014. As moderator of the 213th General Assembly in 2001 and in other leadership roles, Jack Bartlett Rogers was an important advocate for these changes[1]. In his book, Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality, he lays out the argument for why he believes that:

“We need to give people who are LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender] full and equal rights within the church and work for their rights within the broader society. That means that marriage, ordination, and every other right necessary to bring people who are homosexual into full equality with people who are heterosexual.” (107-108)

Because this book was published in 2009, it anticipated changes in the policy of the PCUSA by several years and played an active role in advocating for these changes. As such, readers interested in the genesis of these changes will want to be familiar with the arguments in this book[2].

Who is Jack Rogers?

Rogers is currently Professor Emeritus of Theology  at San Francisco Theological Seminary. While he is the author of numerous books, I am most familiar with his book, Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions (2001), a study both in church history and dogmatics. Dogmatics is: “the study of the arrangement and statement of religious doctrines, especially of the doctrines received in and taught by the Christian church.”[3] Rogers describes himself as “evangelical theologically” which makes sense for a former faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, but probably not for a faculty member at San Francisco Theological Seminary (6).

Outline of Book

As advocacy, Rogers’ Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality can be described as a work in the field of dogmatics. Rogers writes in 8 chapters:

  1. Studying Homosexuality for the First Time.
  2. A Pattern of Misusing the Bible to Justify Oppression.
  3. A Breakthrough in Understanding the Word of God.
  4. Interpreting the Bible in Times of Controversy.
  5. What the Bible Says and Doesn’t Say about Homosexuality.
  6. Real People and Real Marriage.
  7. Recommendations for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
  8. All are One in Christ Jesus. (vi)

Before the chapters are 2 prefaces and acknowledgments. After the chapters are an appendix, a lengthy study guide, notes, and a topical index. Missing is a scriptural index.

Rogers Requires Careful Reading

For example, one of the problems with the term, evangelical, is that the meaning has changed dramatically over the years and is often criticized as being a meaningless term. In chapter 1, Rogers defines an evangelical as:

“someone who accepts three propositions: (1) People can and should have a personal relationship with God through trust in Jesus Christ. (2) The Bible is the final authority for salvation and living the Christian life. (3) God’s grace in Jesus Christ is such good news that everyone should hear about it” (6).

So far so good. Rogers then goes on to distance himself from “fundamentalists” whom he describes as “more politically monolithic and more theologically conservative than evangelicalism.” (7) Fundamentalists have attempted over the years to give theological substance and voice to the evangelical movement.  Yet, Rogers uses them primarily in his book as a foil for criticism.

Rogers as Artful Politician

Chapter 2 is a case in point. Attorneys often cite this old saw:

if the facts support your case, then argue the facts; if the facts don’ support your case, then argue the law; if the facts and the law don’t support your case, then stand and shout.

Here the chain of reasoning is:  homosexual conduct is medically risky (fact) and it is a sin (law) [4], but it is also okay by Rogers (stand and shout).  If biblical interpretation provided a strong case for mainstreaming LGBT persons in the church, then one would expect chapter 2 to lay out the case for homosexuality—it does not. Instead, chapter 2 focuses on how biblical interpretation was misused to oppress blacks and women in the past (17). The art of politics lies in using innuendo—an indirect rather than a direct assault—to make an emotional point (standing and shouting) supporting your case. In this case, he argues that the Bible was misused in the nineteenth century to support slavery and oppress women—now, it is being misused to oppress homosexuals.

The problem is that evangelical Christians in the nineteenth century also successfully led efforts to abolish slavery and promote women’s rights [5].  The fascinating part is that in making these arguments[6] he both lionizes 2 key constituencies (blacks and women) and, by inference, defames his opponents as being in the same league with racists and misogynists from the past who misused the Bible. While this is artful politics, one does not expect this line of reasoning within the church and it does not suggest a strong biblical case for homosexuality.

Rogers’ interest in Christology and his background in neo-orthodoxy are also fascinating. Troubling was the way that he split (much like the earlier split between evangelicals and fundamentalists) Jesus Christ from the scriptural witness—we understand Jesus Christ only from scripture and direct revelation (52-53).   The tradition of the church primarily represents scriptural interpretations rendered over time.  Consequently, because Rogers does not claim a new revelation of God [7],  it is highly misleading to separate Jesus from the scripture witness.

Rogers Departs from Reformed Interpretation

His proposed interpretative technique is laid out in 7 guidelines:

  1. Jesus Christ is the center of scripture.
  2. Focus on the plain text in grammatical and historical context.
  3. Depend on the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
  4. Be guided by the consensus of the church.
  5. Let all interpretations be guided by the rule of love—love of God and neighbor [8].
  6. Establish a best text.
  7. Seek the whole counsel of scripture (65).

A key problem with this list is item 6—establish a best text—which is in direct tension with item 7—seek the whole counsel of scripture. Picking a favorite text and reading the rest of the Bible in view of it allows complete freedom to read the text anyway you like—or, if you are a church leader, to control the interpretations of the church with your particular theology in view [9]. In fact, item 5 is an example of a best text (item 6) and an attempt to control interpretation [10].

Missing from this list is a key interpretative technique that Rogers employs repeatedly throughout his book.  He argues that the biblical homosexual prohibitions exist primarily to establish male dominance.  For example, he writes:

“The hosts [in Sodom and Gomorrah] do not seem to think of the attackers as primarily homosexual, or they would not offer women for them to abuse.” (67)

No doubt Moses employs this argument to show the depravity of the men of Sodom and Gomorrah; Rogers employs the argument to defame the hosts as misogynists and to divert attention away from homosexual sin.  Rogers employs this sociological argument repeatedly (e.g. 74-75) which has the unfortunate consequence of undermining the authority of scripture in the eyes of those reading Rogers text—especially women.  How can church unity follow from interpretation techniques that by their nature divide and conquer along gender lines?

The Protestant reformation was launched along with a new interpretative method—John Calvin’s—which focused on the authority of scripture[11].  Without saying so, Rogers discards the interpretative standards of the reformed tradition by substituting his own standards.  The irony of Rogers’ proposed changes in church polity and biblical interpretation follow American culture much the same way as he criticized the church doing in generations past.  The difference is, however, that American culture today is overtly secular, atheistic, and post Christian.


Jack Rogers’ Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality is likely to be debated for years to come. It is easy to read and hard to understand. The target audience is broadly the LGBT community, woman’s groups, and minorities within mainline denominations. Rogers may, however, be remembered more widely as re-energizing interest in the study and practice of dogmatics, but perhaps for reasons he may not want to own.

In part 1 of this review, I have summarized of Rogers’ methods of argumentation and interpretation. In part 2, I will take a closer look at the biblical texts which both focus on homosexuality and at the biblical texts which Rogers’ highlights in his final chapter.


[1] Comments supporting this assessment are found on a website:  www.DrJackRogers.com.  Anyone doubting Rogers’ position on this issue will want to read the first blurb on the first page by Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church.  Early in chapter 1, Rogers also discusses a group called More Light Presbyterians who have a: “ mission of More Light Presbyterians is to work for the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and in society.” (www.MLP.org).

[2] Readers interested in the debate over scripture with Robert Gagnon (author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice) can find this online at:  http://bit.ly/1GrGVvz.  Read part 1 of my review of Gagnon at: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-15F.

[3] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/dogmatics

[4]  Read part 1 of my review of Gagnon at: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-15F.

[5] See:  Dayton (2005).

[6] At the heart of his argument is a weak analogy.  In fact, the Bible’s arguments about slavery and role of women evolve between the Old and New Testaments in a way that is not true for homosexuality. The weakness in this analogy was the focus of a recent book by Webb (2001).  Read my review at: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Bn.

[7] Rogers’ revelation is more political than spiritual.  He writes:  “I worked through how the church, guided by the Holy Spirit in understanding the scriptures, reversed our prohibitions against ordination to leadership of African Americans, women, and divorced and remarried people.” (15)  The argument goes 1 then 2 then 3 then 4, therefore 5.  The Bible never promoted slavery, even if it acknowledged it; women are clearly in leadership in both the Old and New Testament, although not as frequently as today; and divorce is a sin in the Bible, except in the case of adultery, yet the modern church has mostly looked the other way.  He is confusing what some people in the church have done with a mandate from the Holy Spirit and drawn an inference that cannot be made in scripture, but is now politically popular.

[8] At the heart of this debate over homosexuality is the proper definition of love.  In the Greek, Rogers is using a principle based on the Agape love (ἀγαπάω; love of neighbor) to excuse a sin based on type of Eros love (ἔρως; passionate love).  At a minimum, this argument is mixing apples and oranges.  It is certainly not an inference that could be drawn from Matthew 22:36-40 which is based on Old Testament law (Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18) which also prohibits homosexuality (Lev 20:13).

[9] The usual way that Protestants seek to interpret scripture starts with a focus on the intent of the author which is clarified by the whole counsel of scripture.  Then and only then is the reader’s interpretation brought in.  See for example:  (Vanhoozer 1998).  See my review at: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Yq.

[10] The double love command (Matt. 22:36-40) is certainly important and much beloved among Christians. However, how can a general statement about love overrule specific guidance on the sinfulness of homosexuality?

[11] Thompson (2004, 58-62, 67, 71) viewed Calvin having 4 interpretative principles, including:  1. understand the author’s intent, 2. communicate effectively, 3. consult the original texts, and 4. consider the text and its application in the context of the canon of scripture.


Dayton, Donald W.  2005. Discovering an Evangelical Heritage. Peabody: Hendrickson.

Gagnon, Robert A. J. 2001. The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Rogers, Jack. 1991. Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Thompson, John L.  “Calvin as Biblical Interpreter.”  Pages 58-73 in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin.  Edited by Donald A. McKim.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. 1998. Is There a Meaning in This Text:  The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

Webb, William J. 2001. Slaves, Women and Homosexuals:  Exploring the Hermaneutics of Cultural Analysis.  Colorado Springs:  IVP Academic.

Rogers Advocates for LGBT Equality, Part 1

Continue Reading

Gagnon: Bridging the Bible and Gender Confusion, Part 3

Gagnon_review_06082015Robert A. J. Gagnon.  2001.  The Bible and Homosexual Practice:  Texts and Hermeneutics.  Nashville:  Abingdon Press. (Goto part 1; goto part 2)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

If homosexual conduct reduces life expectancy today when modern medicine is readily available, then it must have been even worse in the ancient world. In a context where the poor routinely starved to death, child mortality was extreme[1], and any access to medical care rare, except among the very wealthy, living a godly lifestyle was a survival strategy.  When the Apostle Paul writes:

 “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures…” (1 Cor. 15:3 ESV)

Life and death hang in the balance.  So Paul describes faith as of “first importance”.

New Testament

Gagnon divides his discussion of the New Testament into a short chapter (44 pages) on the witness of Jesus and a long chapter (108 pages) on the witness of Paul.  He writes in 6 working chapters, including:

  1. The Context of Ancient Judaism and Jesus’ View of Torah.
  2. Jesus on Genesis and Male-Female Complementarity.
  3. Deconstructing the Myth of a Sexually Tolerant Jesus.
  4. Love and Righteousness in the Ministry of Jesus.
  5. Romans 1:24-27.
  6. The Vice Lists in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10.

Let me focus on the longer discussions, items 4 and 5 above.

Love and Righteousness in the Ministry of Jesus

One of the enduring pictures of Jesus come from the parable of the loss sheep (210). Luke the physician writes:

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost. Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:4-7 ESV)

Notice that the parable targets those who are lost in sin and, when lost, are brought back to repentance.  Jesus’ healing ministry was not restricted to physical healing, but focused on repentance of wayward lifestyles and transformation into godly lifestyles (211).

Faith in God is like that—life  requires acknowledging that we participate in both a physical and spiritual reality.  Ignoring our spiritual reality leaves us like zombies—physical beings without life; ignoring our physical reality leaves us like ghosts—spiritual beings without a body.  Jesus rose from the dead both physically and spiritually [2].

Luke 15

Gagnon makes the point that Luke 15 has a theme of lostness—lost sheep, lost coins, lost (prodigal) sons.  He writes:  “The lost son is even identified with a dead person or corpse.” (211) In some sense, the modern church has, relative to those lost in gender confusion, often played the part of the older brother in the parable of prodigal son (also lost) who could not love his father and refused to accept the return of his wayward brother (211-212).

How do you properly love an unrepentant sinner?  Luke points to the father in the parable of the prodigal son who offers forgiveness and reinstatement in the family. Gagnon (213) points out:  “Jesus did not confuse love with toleration of all behaviors…”  Citing the story of the woman caught in adultery, Gagnon focuses on Jesus’ parting words to her:

“Jesus stood up and said to her, Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? She said, No one, Lord. And Jesus said, Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:10-11)

Healing comes not only from being loved on but also from being transformed. Truth and grace together make the Gospel—truth alone cannot be heard; grace alone denies the law [3].  This idea is captured also by the author of Hebrews:  “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb 4:15)  We need to hear the bad news before the good news makes any sense.  Grace is a gift that we have to live into if it is to transform us.

Romans 1:24-27

One question that intrigued me in seminary was the nature of the new covenant that we have in Christ.  What exactly does the new covenant look like and what are its provisions?

The Mosaic covenant is fairly easy to articulate because the law, starting with the Ten Commandments, is laid out in concrete detail in Exodus 20 (and Deut 6) and the blessings and curses are laid out in even more detail in Deuteronomy 28.  In Paul’s writing, the new covenant in Christ is loosely described as the Gospel and in the dichotomy between law and grace.  The most specific statement of the Gospel appears in Romans 1:

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, The righteous shall live by faith [in Jesus Christ]. For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” (Rom 1:16-18)

Salvation from sin is freely given to all that believe in Jesus Christ—those that reject this salvation become objects of wrath.  What is this wrath?  Rejecting salvation garners a curse:  “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity…” (Rom 1:24)  Because of the deprivation of original sin, being given up to your own desires is a curse—it is a curse to get what you want [3].  Rejecting the Gospel also means that one remains subject to the law.  Living a Christian lifestyle is not denying our true selves as victims of dark desires; it is expressing our true selves as victors in Christ’s righteousness.

Gagnon observes that Romans 1:24-27 is a central New Testament text dealing with homosexual conduct, both among men and women (229).  The overall context for Paul is original sin which affects both Jews and Gentiles (240; Rom 3:9).  This passage is edgy because:

“God does not judge them for their ignorance but for acting contrary to the knowledge that they do have.  This suppression of knowledge shows itself especially in two ways: idolatry and same-sex intercourse.” (247).

Idolatry is about priorities.  Idolatry is anything that we substitute for God’s  priority in our lives—is our identity in Christ or is it in other things like our work, sexuality, or entertainments?  Idolatry is not just substituting stone statues for the reality of God; it is replacing God’s priority in our lives for other priorities. The prohibition on idolatry is the first of the Ten Commandments because our survival depends on it:

“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me…” (Exod 20:3-5)

God is jealous, not because He depends on our love or somehow needs sycophants; God is jealous because He loves us and knows how easily we are tempted into self-destruction.

Notice the inter-generational curse implied in Exodus 20:5 focused on those that hate God (247-249).  Paul is not making up stuff in Romans 1—he is just adjusting the law to suit the new covenant in Christ.  Ignoring God means worshiping something else and earns the curse of being given over to your own desires.  Because the Romans were famous for their immorality and homosexuality, Paul’s emphasis on immorality and homosexuality is tailored to his audience—but it is also obviously tailored to our unrighteous situation today.


In spite of the passage of time, Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice remains an important resource for biblical scholars and interested Christians. A key difference between Gagnon’s exegetical work on homosexuality and other treatments is his insistence on using scripture to interpret scripture. Authors who claim homosexuality is consistent with scripture usually focus on a narrow number of verses (e.g. Matt 22:36-40) and discount other passages (e.g. Lev 20:13) that disagree with their position.  Consequently, progressives desiring credibility on this subject and evangelicals wanting to be informed need to engage this text.


[1] A parallel is found in Deuteronomy for disobeying the Mosaic covenant:  “The LORD will strike you with wasting disease and with fever, inflammation and fiery heat, and with drought and with blight and with mildew. They shall pursue you until you perish.” (Deut. 28:22)

[2] Resurrection of the Body (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Ii).

[3] The story of the woman caught in adultery is widely recognized as a later addition to the text of the Gospel of John and is bracketed in the Greek text.  However, the tension between grace and truth is deep part of the biblical tradition.  See, for example, the attributes of God listed in Exodus 34:6 which are divinely reveal immediately after God gives Moses the Ten Commandments.  The translation reads: “The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” (Exod 34:6).  Grace is specifically translated.  The word translated as faithfulness ( אֱמֶֽת ), is translated as truth in the King James and the New American Standard versions.  This implies that both grace and truth have always been God’s character traits.

[3] Child mortality is still a problem in many countries.  My mother-in-law (born 1914) grew up in a well-to-do family in Iran. Still, her mother had only 4 children survive out of 16 live births.

Gagnon: Bridging the Bible and Gender Confusion, Part 3

Continue Reading

Gagnon: Bridging the Bible and Gender Confusion, Part 2

Robert Gagnon, the Bible and Homosexual PracticeRobert A. J. Gagnon.  2001.  The Bible and Homosexual Practice:  Texts and Hermeneutics.  Nashville:  Abingdon Press. (Goto part 1; goto part 3)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

What does it mean to be human?

The focus of the modern church since the nineteenth century has been on finding new interpretations of the Bible’s view of anthropology—anthropology is the study of what it means to be human.  According to one definition of anthropology, it is:  “the science that deals with the origins, physical and cultural development, biological characteristics, and social customs and beliefs of humankind.”[1]  Much of what the Bible says about the nature of humanity comes from the Old Testament, especially the Book of Genesis.  One of the Old Testament’s core teachings is that—whatever else we are—we are all inherently sinful by nature.

Old Testament Teaching

Gagnon appropriately devotes more than 100 pages at the beginning of The Bible and Homosexual Practice to the Old Testament.  These topics are covered:

  1. The Ancient Near East (ANE; outside of Israel) laws and practices pertaining to homosexuality;
  2. The creation accounts in Genesis 1-3;
  3. Noah’s curse of Ham in Genesis 9:20-27;
  4. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:4-11;
  5. The rape of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19:22-25) and the image of women in Judges (19-21);
  6. Homosexual cult prostitution in Israel;
  7. The prohibition of homosexuality in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 where it is described as an abomination ( תּוֹעֵבָ֖ה); and
  8. David and Jonathan.

Because most conversations about homosexuality sexuality within the church revolve around the creation accounts and only occasionally stray as far as the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, let me focus my comments accordingly.

The Creation Accounts

The creation accounts in Genesis 1-3 are important because they set the standard for “acceptable sexual practice”— homosexuality is not specifically mentioned (56).  Only human beings were created in God’s image and given the task of ruling God’s creation.  Only human beings are capable of working the garden and resting on the seventh day to consciously worship God. Ruling requires populating the earth with human beings and procreation makes this happen.  Gagnon (57) writes:  “The complementarity of male and female is thereby secured in the divinely sanctioned work of governing creation.”

Gagnon views male/female complementarity in Genesis to be more than simply physical—it is physical, interpersonal, and procreative sexual complementarity—that is blessed by God, anchored in a stable family structure, and given a mission (58, 62).  God said:

“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen. 1:28 ESV)

Adam and Eve were blessed to be co-regents (having dominion) in the Eden kingdom working on God’s behalf—procreation was part, but not all, of being a co-regent.  Animals were rejected as suitable partners for Adam; Eve was acceptable because she was “bone of my bones and flesh from my flesh” (Gen. 2:23)—part of what it meant to be a complete human being (61).  Furthermore, the marriage was more important than parental obligations—an uniquely Hebrew concept in the Ancient Near East (ANE) where family and clan had priority over everything else.

The story of Eden, however, does not end well.  Adam and Eve disobeyed God and were cast out of the garden (Gen. 3:24). Much of the remainder of the Book of Genesis outlines the corrupting power of sin. This corruption runs deep—polluting both our hearts and minds—and no one is immune. Sin affects who we are (our identity) and everything that we do.  Confusion is not the exception; it is the norm.  The good news is that in Christ we are no longer slaves to sin, but slaves of righteousness (Romans 6).

Sodom and Gomorrah

Gagnon describes the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as the classic story about homosexuality.  More recently, critics have argued that the story only deals with homosexual rape or merely being inhospitable.  However, Gagnon makes the point that this narrower reading focusing on rape is inappropriate. The text, like other texts such as the curse of Ham[2], uses the reference to same-sex intercourse as expressing an “inherently degrading quality” which is, for example, why Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed by God himself (71, 75).

The interpretative dilemma arises because in Genesis 18, where the reason for God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is discussed, the first 9 verses in the chapter portrays Abraham as the ultimate hospitable host—the first 3 verses of Genesis 19 do the same thing for his nephew Lot.  Meanwhile, Genesis 19:5-11 shows the men of Sodom as an angry mob bent on homosexual rape. The key verses spoken by the men of Sodom to Lot is: “Where are the men [angels] who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know [יָדַע] them.” (Gen. 19:5) [3]. This verse accordingly explains, presumably, why: “the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave” (Gen. 18:20).

Is Genesis 19 being used by the author, presumably Moses, as a case of an inhospitable community or is it displaying an arch type of wickedness?

Gagnon opts for the latter interpretation and uses other scripture passages in the Old and New Testament to argue his case.  For example, the Book of Leviticus, also written by Moses, could not condemn homosexuality more strongly than saying:

“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” (Lev. 20:13)

Why would Moses treat homosexuality more leniently in one place as another? (75, 83)  Gagnon interprets later references to Sodom and Gomorrah in Ezekiel 16 as displaying—in addition to immoral conduct, pride, child sacrifice, and contempt for the poor (injustice)—arrogance in relation to God.  Gagnon additionally cites 2 Peter 2:6-10 and Jude 7[4] as New Testament passages supporting this interpretation (85, 89).

Curiously, it is God that destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, not Abraham, even though  Abraham had ample opportunity. Abraham captured it as a prize of war (Gen 14) and later interceded with God not to destroy the cities (Gen 18:20-33).  If Abraham is our model of faith, then we are to leave judgment to God and pray for those around us caught up in gender confusion [5].

Hostility in Old Testament?

More generally, why is there such hostility to homosexuality in the Old Testament?

The usual answer among Jewish scholars is that homosexuality is contrary to nature, as created by God (159-183). Reviewing extra-biblical sources, such as Philo and Josephus (160), Gagnon cites 4 reasons for why only heterosexual intercourse was natural:

  1. Homosexual intercourse cannot lead to procreation;
  2. Physical complementary of male and female sex organs;
  3. Homoerotic desire reflects an  excess of passion; and
  4. Animal do not normally practice homosexuality (163).

Of these 4 arguments, Gagnon sees the first two arguments as constituting the primary concerns (180-181).   Because God is first identified as a creator in Genesis, procreation in the accounts of Adam and Eve plays an important role in bearing God’s image (Gen 1:27).


The gist of Gagnon’s argument is that homosexuality is clearly inconsistent with the Old Testament witness and that this inconsistency entails health consequences even today. Therefore, the moral teaching on marriage and prohibitions in the Bible on homosexual practice remain binding on the church today (theological statement).  Our response, however, should be to stand with those caught up in gender confusion—much like we would stand with someone caught up in alcoholism—and, at a minimum, to pray for them (ethical dilemma).  Obviously, because it is hard to hate or to ostracize someone that you pray for, God’s instruction here implies that we should do much more than simply pray.

In part 3, I will explore Gagnon’s arguments based on the New Testament.


[1] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/anthropology.

[2] Commentators frequently argue that Ham’s son Canaan was cursed to be a slave of his brother because he homosexually raped his father Noah.  Therefore, because his sin involved his “seed” then the curse would fall on his “seed”. Theologically, this is an important argument because it essentially justified the genocide practiced against the Canaanites—the sin of homosexuality, especially the rape of one’s father— was so extreme that an extreme remedy was thereby justified.

[3] In the Hebrew, to know [yada] someone was a euphemism for sexual intercourse.

[4] “And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day–just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones.” (Jude 1:6-8 ESV)

[5]  This same prayer template is repeated in the enigmatic story of Abraham, Sarah, and Abimelech (Gen 20) which also focuses on sexual sin (adultery/polygamy).  In this story, Abimelech takes Sarah into his harem and God informs him in a dream that he would die because he has done this.  Abimelech protests that he has not touched Sarah.  God then instructs him to return Sarah to Abraham and to ask Abraham intercede in prayer for his life.  Abimelech faithful adheres to God’s advice—he returns Sarah to Abraham; grants Abraham a huge reparation payment; asks Abraham to pray for him; Abraham prays for him; and Abimelech’s life is spared.  Why is prayer successful in Abimelech’s case and unsuccessful in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah?  My guess is that it is because Abimelech repented of his sin.

Gagnon: Bridging the Bible and Gender Confusion, Part 2

Continue Reading

Gagnon: Bridging the Bible and Gender Confusion, Part 1

Robert Gagnon, the Bible and Homosexual PracticeRobert 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, Author of Simple Faith and other books available online.

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).

Homosexuality Contrary to God’s Intent

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.

Pastoral Response

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.

Background on Gagnon

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.

Church Response

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.

Gagnon: Bridging the Bible and Gender Confusion, Part 1

Also see:

Fortson and Grams Bible Limits Sex to Christian Marriage, Part 1 

Campbell Turns Gender Confusion into Ministry

Rogers Argues for LGBT Equality, Part 1

Webb: Analyzing Culture in Scripture and in Life

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2018_Ascension

Continue Reading