Mere Sexuality | Book Review


How should Christians think about human sexuality? That is the question Todd Wilson asks in his new book, Mere Sexuality: Rediscovering the Christian Vision of Sexuality. Wilson (Ph.D., Cambridge University) is senior pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, Illinois, and cofounder and chairman of The Center for Pastor Theologians. His is a timely book, given the sea change of opinion and practice that has washed over Western culture since the middle of the 20th century.

“Did you know,” Wilson asks, “despite a genuine diversity of views expressed along the way, the church has held to a coherent view of human sexuality for centuries?” With a nod to C. S. Lewis, he calls this view “mere sexuality,” that is, “what most Christians at most times in most places have believed about human sexuality.”

The book touches on “a whole range of biblical, theological, cultural, and practical questions.” These include biblical and theological reflections on biological sex, gender identity, marriage, sexual intercourse, celibacy and homosexuality.

For example, Chapter 2, “The Sexuality of Jesus,” looks at what the Incarnation says about sexuality. Many who write on this topic look at Jesus’ words and actions for guidance. What did He teach about sexual immorality? How did He interact with sexual sinners?

This is appropriate, of course, but Wilson thinks we ought to look deeper at what Jesus’ person teaches us about human sexuality. He writes:

The Son of God, though biologically sexed, lived a sex-free, fully contented life. Not an easy, pain-free existence, but a whole and deeply and richly human life. This is a remarkable fact — one that confronts all of us, whether we’re same-sex-attracted or straight, married or single. It also confronts our secular culture and the evangelical church culture as well — I suspect in some uncomfortable ways. I find it’s easy to forget (and tempting to resist the idea) that I don’t need sex to be satisfied. Jesus didn’t, and yet he was supremely satisfied in God…

One of the main claims of mere sexuality, as it has been articulated and practiced throughout the church’s history, is that while sexuality (our being biologically sexed as male and female) is central to what it means to be human, sexual activity is not. If we want to be fully human, we have to embrace our sexed bodies. But we don’t have to engage in sexual activity to be fully human. The life of the Son of God makes that perfectly clear.

The Incarnation itself, in other words, challenges the “pervasive and powerful cultural myth” of “our hypersexualized contemporary culture,” namely, that “sexual activity is essential to human fulfillment — that you can’t be human without it.”

I quote this particular passage not because it is the end of Wilson’s discussion — the book goes on for five more chapters — but because it is a badly needed example of how doctrine can inform practice. We cannot present a Christian view of human sexuality unless we have examined it through a theological lens. What we believe about Creation, the Fall, Christ, the Resurrection, and eschatology shapes — at least, it should shape — how we think about and practice sexuality.

Mere Sexuality is written for a broad audience, so it can be read profitably by pastors and laity alike. It would make a good text for discussion in book clubs and small groups. I highly recommend it.

 

Book Reviewed
Todd Wilson, Mere Sexuality: Rediscovering the Christian Vision of Sexuality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017).

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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Dr. Todd Wilson | Influence Podcast


In this episode, I talk to Dr. Todd Wilson about the Christian church’s historic consensus about human sexuality, bringing Christian theology to bear on a controversial topic.

Wilson is senior pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, Illinois, as well as cofounder and chair of The Center for Pastor Theologians. His newest book is Mere Sexuality: Rediscovering the Christian Vision of Sexuality, which will be published on October 9th by Zondervan

To learn more about Mere Sexuality, visit MereSexuality.com. The website of The Center for Pastor Theologians is PastorTheologians.com.

Thursday’s Influence Online Articles


Today, over at InfluenceMagazine.com:

  • Jeff Leake and I talk in today’s Influence Podcast about why every believer needs to be baptized in the Holy Spirit.
  • We note two Gallup polls indicating a sea-change of American opinion about same-sex marriage particularly and homosexuality generally and recommend several resources for navigating the challenges this change of opinion presents.

Please make sure to follow and like InfluenceInfluence magazine on Facebook, Twitter, and iTunes!

P.S. The June-July 2017 issue of Influence is in the mail, so I’ve changed the featured image for this month’s post to the new cover.

Review of ‘Speaking of Homosexuality’ by Joe Dallas


Joe Dallas, Speaking of Homosexuality: Discussing the Issues with Kindness and Clarity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2016).

The Christian sexual ethic is out of step with the times. This is true across a wide range of heterosexual behaviors, such as premarital sex, cohabitation and no-fault divorce. But Christians are rarely called out for their opposition to those behaviors. When it comes to homosexuality, however, the response is different. Christian opposition to homosexuality generally or same-sex marriage specifically provokes accusations of homophobia and hatred.

The Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which legalized same-sex marriage throughout the nation, further contributes to the marginalization of the Christian sexual ethic. Same-sex marriage is now understood as a fundamental civil right, and opposition to it is likened to support for segregation in the American South during the era of Jim Crow.

How should Christians speak of homosexuality in this adverse environment?

That’s the question my friend Joe Dallas seeks to answer in his new book, Speaking of Homosexuality. Until 1984, Joe was “a staff member with a pro-gay church, an openly gay man, and an activist, identifying as a gay Christian, arguing for the acceptance of homosexuality.” Then, however, his study of Scripture convinced him that he was in error. For the last thirty years, he has ministered to others, both gay and straight, helping them to develop a biblical perspective on human sexuality. He thus brings a unique personal perspective to bear on this controversial topic.

Joe frames much of the book as a conversation between “Traditionalists” and “Revisionists.” Traditionalists advocate the “traditional view of marriage and sexuality,” namely, that marriage is the lifelong union of a man and a woman, and that outside of marriage, a person should remain celibate. Revisionists advocate “revising our view of Scripture or of morality in general to condone homosexuality.”

The first three chapters of Speaking of Homosexuality provide a “contextual overview” of the debate between Traditionalists and Revisionists. Chapter 1 argues that “knowing the context of our conversation can help us anticipate problems, adjust our approach, and stay sensitive to the perceptions and feelings of others.” Joe points out that the often acrimonious conversations between the two groups typically revolve around “presumption, politics, and the personal” (emphasis in original). Both sides, that is to say, make assumptions about the other the side that renders them “guilty of stereotyping.” Consequently, “mistrust is a frequent companion” to such conversations.

Chapter 2 identifies three goals traditionalist Christians may have when speaking of homosexuality with others: “evangelizing an unbeliever, discipling a believer in error, or simply reasoning with someone about our different views.” These goals shape the content of those conversations in different ways.

Additionally, who your conversation partner is shapes the kind of conversation you have. Joe identifies five groups in particular: “militants, mainstream, millennials, Revisionists, and friends and family.” Too often, traditionalists lump all LGBT people and their allies into the militant category. Dallas thinks this is a mistake. Rather, “most…could be described as mainstream, fellow humans and citizens with whom we have more in common than differences. And, per Jesus, they’re our neighbors, whom we’re to love and serve.” That last sentence is key, as far as I’m concerned. Too often, Traditionalists approach those on the other side of this issue as enemies to be defeated rather than as neighbors to be loved. That’s not Jesus’ way of doing things.

Chapter 3 then outlines seven guidelines to follow when speaking of homosexuality:

  1. Speak clearly.
  2. Speak appropriately.
  3. Speak empathically.
  4. Concede what’s true.
  5. Consider what’s possible.
  6. Watch the apologies.
  7. Recognize and point out diversions.

I want to hone in on numbers 3 and 4, because this is where I think my fellow Traditionalists most often go wrong. We do not empathize with the “feelings” and “experiences” of LGBT people. Consequently, we are prone to speak “irresponsible, inaccurate, contemptuous words” at or about them. “Lots of Christians have said hateful things about gays,” Dallas writes. “Lots of Christians are more upset about homosexuality than they are about adultery or fornication, even though those are condemned in the Bible.” Both statements are true. There is no virtue in denying either of them.

If chapters 1–3 address the “context” of our conversations, chapters 4–13 address their “content.” Dallas examines the “origins of homosexuality” (chapter 4), whether “change” of orientation is possible (chapter 5), whether opposition to same-sex marriage is reasonable (chapter 6), whether moral disapproval of homosexuality in and of itself constitutes “homophobia” or “hate” (chapter 7), and in what sense a person can or cannot identify as a “gay Christian” (chapter 8). Dallas’ discussion of the issues in these chapters is nuanced, which is appropriate for the complex subjects they address.

Chapters 9–13 then take up the proper interpretation of the most commonly cited biblical passages disapproving of homosexuality: Genesis 19:1–11 (chapter 9); Leviticus 18:22, 20:13 (chapter 10); Romans 1:24–27 (chapter 12); 1 Corinthians 6:9–10, 1 Timothy 1:9–10 (chapter 13). Chapter 11 examines what significance Jesus’ “silence” about homosexuality has for the moral debate. Dallas’ treatment of these passages is brief but competent. Like him, I find it difficult to agree with Revisionist interpretation of these passages, for the reasons that he cites.

Indeed, in my opinion, it would be more intellectually honest for Revisionists to say that these passages are wrong or irrelevant than to say that they have been misinterpreted or misapplied. In other words, there is good reason why the Traditionalist position has been the default position of the Church for the last two millennia. It is because, as the children’s gospel song says, “the Bible tells me so.” If you’re familiar with the historical arc of the Revisionist position, it begins with “The Bible has been misinterpreted” and ends with “The Bible is wrong on this matter.” That is the arc of mainline Protestant thinking on this topic. My guess is that that is where evangelical Revisionists will land eventually as well. Disagreeing with the Bible is not a place where evangelicals should want to be.

Speaking of Homosexuality is a countercultural book. As I wrote at the outset, the Christian sexual ethic is out of step with the times. This is nothing new, however, since Christianity’s sexual ethic was out of step with the culture of its own time as well. The question, then as now, is with whom—or rather, Whom—we will walk in step going forward.

I’ll conclude this review with Joe Dallas’ closing words:

A steward is rewarded for faithfulness, not outcomes. We hope greater faithfulness means greater outcomes. But ‘other things’—such as God’s and the hearer’s will—come into play. And since those factors are out of our hands, we keep those hands on the plow, striving to improve our understanding, articulation, attitudes, and faithfulness to the standards we preach. Above all, we continue seeking deeper intimacy with the Master we serve.

Speaking of homosexuality is a small part of that life commission. Our more general commission is to speak of Jesus, His teachings, His invitation, His nature, and His soon coming. Any truth we can lovingly communicate to better prepare people for eternity, binding them to Him, is critical.

_____
P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review originally appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com.

Review of ‘Seeing Black and White in a Gray World’ by Bill T. Arnold


Seeing-Black-and-white Bill T. Arnold, Seeing Black and White in a Gray World: The Need for Theological Reasoning in the Church’s Debate Over Sexuality (Franklin, TN: Seedbed Publishing, 2014). Paperback / Kindle

Few topics generate as much heated conflict among Christians as homosexuality does. Should pastors solemnize and churches recognize same-sex marriages? Should denominations ordain non-celibate gays and lesbians for ministry? The conflict over these questions has been evident among mainline Protestant churches for some time now, but it is increasingly appearing among evangelical Protestant churches too.

In 2008, Adam Hamilton—who pastors America’s largest United Methodist church in Leawood, Kansas—published Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White. In that book, he argued that a “third way” on the topic of homosexuality was both possible and preferable—as well as on other topics that divide Christian. The book was influential among United Methodist pastors and more broadly on what one might call “liberal” evangelicals.

Bill T. Arnold is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, as well as a professor of Old Testament studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Seeing Black and White in a Gray World is his critique of Hamilton’s book, focusing on the need for a theological approach to the question of homosexuality, one that he believes is lacking from Hamilton’s book.

Arnold lays out his case clearly, logically, and graciously. He argues that a “third way” on homosexuality is not possible because solemnizing same-sex marriages and ordaining non-celibate LGBT persons is either right or wrong as a matter of moral principle. A “third way” is not preferable because unity should not be bought through a compromise of moral principle. And a “third way” does not necessarily represent progress because the Church always stands in a tensive relationship with culture, with the goal of transforming it. To do this, the church must sometimes issue a prophetic critique of cultural trends, such as the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage, not just a spiritual affirmation of them.

Arnold also argues that the traditional Methodist process of theological reasoning—the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience—should lead the United Methodist Church to reject same-sex marriage. He pinpoints the crux of the controversy in that denomination as a debate between what Scripture teaches about homosexual conduct on the one hand and a contemporary social construction of homosexual experience on the other. In his judgment, too many Methodists—including Hamilton, to a degree—give experience a weight equal to or greater than Scripture. This, he points out, is not how the Quadrilateral is supposed to work. Tradition, reason, and experience may confirm what Scripture teaches—or help us understand it better—but they cannot be used as independent norms that contradict and overturn explicit biblical prohibitions.

Finally, Arnold repeatedly points to the longstanding practices of the United Methodist Church a moderate way to deal with the controversy. These practices combine the teaching of holiness with the practice of hospitality, the former a core doctrinal tenet and the latter an important moral virtue. The biblical affirmation of marriage as a man-woman institution need not—must not!—be construed as permission to be unkind or unloving to people who experience same-sex attraction. By the same token, the biblical practice of hospitality cannot be taken as an endorsement of sexual practices the Bible prohibits.

Proponents of same-sex marriage within the United Methodist Church will probably not like Seeing Black and White in a Gray World. But it seems to me that whether or not they agree with Arnold on the topic of homosexuality, they must agree with him that there is no “third way.” If Scripture prohibits same-sex practices, the United Methodist Church cannot permit them. If Scripture permits same-sex practices, the United Methodist Church cannot prohibit them. There is no mediating alternative, no “gray.” There is only “black” or “white.” This means that Adam Hamilton’s search for an alternative is doomed to fail.

Those of us outside the United Methodist Church, in evangelical Protestant churches that do not affirm same-sex marriage, would do well to read Arnold’s book too. It sheds light on the debate over homosexuality in the Church without generating more heat.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Review of ‘Welcoming But Not Affirming’ by Stanley J. Grenz


9780664257767_p0_v1_s260x420 Stanley J. Grenz, Welcoming But Not Affirming: An Evangelical Response to Homosexuality (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998). $30.00, 224 pages.

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.

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon review page.

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