Together with North American society, North American churches are wrestling with the moral meaning of homosexuality. At the outset of Welcoming But Not Affirming, Stanley J. Grenz frames the ethical question this way: “Should the church continue to condemn homosexual behavior, or has the time come for it to affirm gays and lesbians in its midst?” (p. 2). As the title of the book states, Grenz’s answer is that the church should welcome homosexual persons without affirming their behavior.
Though written fifteen years ago, Grenz’s study is still valuable as a survey of the contours of the church’s debate about homosexuality. Though there have been additions to the relevant literature—notably Robert A. J. Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice and William Stacy Johnson’s A Time to Embrace: Same-Sex Relationships in Religion, Law, and Politics—the arguments on both sides are basically the same as they were when Grenz’s study was first published.
Grenz argues that Christians should answer “questions of faith and practice” through “a conversation involving three ‘voices’”: “the biblical message, the heritage of reflection found within the historical life of the church, and the contemporary culture in which God has called us to live and minister” (p. 11). Given that the first two voices have offered uniformly negative evaluations of homosexual, Grenz narrows the focus of his book’s research question: “has our contemporary cultural situation given us such important new insight into the reality of homosexuality that our traditional reading of scripture is woefully inadequate and therefore in dire need of revision?” (pp. 11, 12).
To answer that question, Grenz divides his work into six chapters.
Chapter 1, “Homosexuality in Contemporary Perspective,” notes that the current debate involves a new understanding of homosexuality. “Prior to the modern era homosexuality was understood almost exclusively in connection with certain specific activities. The contemporary outlook, in contrast, looks at homosexuality primarily as a sexual orientation—as a fixed, lifelong pattern—and only secondarily as actual behavior” (p. 13). Grenz surveys developments in psychology, biology, and sociology that have fostered this change of outlook. Following the Encyclopedia of Bioethics, he defines homosexuality as “a predominant, persistent and exclusive psychosexual attraction toward members of the same sex” (p. 32).
Chapter 2, “The Bible and Homosexuality: The Exegetical Debate,” surveys the biblical passages that discuss or prohibit some form of homosexual conduct under four headings: (1) “The Sins of the Cities” (Gen. 19, Jdg. 19); “The Prohibitions in the Holiness Code” (Lev. 18:22, 20:13); (3) Paul’s Critique of Pagan Society” (Rom. 1:26-27); and (4) “The Pauline Rejection of Same-Sex Acts” (1 Cor. 6:9, 1 Tim. 1:10). He also considers whether David and Jonathan were homosexual lovers (an argument sometimes made by revisionist theologians), and what significance the silence of Jesus on the topic of homosexuality might portend. Grenz considers a number of revisionist exegeses of these texts, ultimately concluding—rightly, in my opinion—that “scholars who propose that the church accept committed same-sex relationships have yet to produce a sufficient basis for revising the traditional belief that the biblical writers condemned homosexual conduct, at least as they had come to know it” (p. 62). In other words, the traditional position is well founded, exegetically.
Chapter 3, “Homosexuality and Church Teaching,” surveys church history and demonstrates how novel the revisionist position is from an historical point of view. The revisionist position traces its origins to “the last half of the twentieth century” (p. 63). The traditional position is more deeply rooted. “Christian ethicists from the second century to the twentieth century forge an unbroken chain. Their teaching, which condemned a variety of behaviors, occurring as they did in differing social contexts, nevertheless connects all such actions together… In each era, Christian moralists rejected the same-sex practices of their day. And they consistently found the basis for such condemnation in the several scriptural texts in which the biblical authors appear to pronounce divine judgment on the homosexual behavior with which they were confronted” (p. 80).
Chapter 4, “Homosexuality and Biblical Authority,” considers the question of how “biblical texts ought to function in the construction of a contemporary Christian outlook toward homosexuality” (p. 81). One might think that the answer is straightforward, but as Grenz notes that this is not the case. Some revisionists argue that biblical authors did not know of the reality of sexual orientation, that is, “a lifelong pattern of sexual preference” (p. 83). More radically, others argue that while “the biblical writers condemn homosexuality,” “no one need to take seriously their injunctions” (p. 86). Traditionalists counter that “the Bible does speak to homosexuality as we know it today, and what it says is normative for Christians’ (p. 89). For Grenz, this is true not only when it comes to specific texts, but also when it comes to larger biblical themes, such as “covenant,” “love,” “justice,” and “liberation.”
Chapter 5, “Homosexuality and the Christian Sex Ethic,” develops “a basically teleological approach to the contemporary issue, an approach that draws from considerations of God’s telos—God’s purpose—for human relationships as given in part in the creation narratives” (p. 102). This includes marriage, of course, but also friendship. He argues: “Same-sex intercourse falls short of the Christian ethical ideal, because it is a deficient act in the wrong context” (p. 110). It is a deficient act because it “loses the symbolic dimension of two-becoming-one present in male-female sex” (p. 111). And it is in the wrong context because it “introduces into the friendship bond the language of exclusivity and permanence that properly belongs solely to marriage” (p. 115).
Chapter 6, “Homosexuality and the Church,” asks whether there is a “place” for homosexual persons in the church, looking at four topics: (1) church membership, (2) same-sex unions, (3) ordination, and (4) the church’s public stance. He writes: “participation in the faith community involves a give-and-take. Discipleship demands that each member understand that he or she is accountable to the community in all dimensions of life, including the sexual” (pp. 133, 134). While the church welcomes all people, it cannot affirm all behaviors. This is the decisive matter in terms of membership, unions, and ordination. Grenz suggests that “Christians might well support extending [social and economic benefits] to participants in a variety of living arrangements, so long as the latter are reserved for marriage” (p. 152). In other words, civil unions, yes; same-sex marriage, no. This was a daring position for traditionalists to take in the late 1990s. One possible outcome of this year’s Supreme Court decision in Windsor v. Perry may be to invalidate that distinction by means of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
It is difficult in a summary of this book to convey the gentleness of tone and nuance of argument that characterizes it. Grenz is a fair-minded reader, generous critic, and resolute proponent of his position. This does not mean that he is uncritical of traditionalists at some points or that he cannot learn at other points from revisionists. But it does mean that, after patient scholarship and without a hectoring tone, Grenz concludes there is insufficient reason to overturn the church’s traditional position on homosexual conduct. I agree with that conclusion.
I cannot help but wonder, however, whether contemporary society is in the mood for arguments such as Grenz’s. The liberationist trend in our society is impatient with restrictions on personal freedom, incredulous toward the arguments that support them—no matter what the tone or level of nuance, and intolerant of anyone who is insufficiently “tolerant” of their choices. Welcoming, but not affirming? How rude!
Grenz died in 2005. One wonders what kind of book he would have written today.
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