A Response to Bishop Sano’s ‘Call to Biblical Obedience’– Part One

It was with great sadness, and dismay, that I read the recent article by Bishop Sano, a retired bishop of the UMC, which can be found here, at this site—- http://www.pnwumc.org/news/biblical-obedience/. I find it sad not only because Bishop Sano is in fact calling for the very opposite of ‘Biblical Obedience’. I find it sad because he mistakenly thinks that a matter of sexual ethics and sexual behavior is somehow a ‘justice’ issue, when it absolutely is not. The very logic of Scripture is turned upside down in order to support an increasingly popular view of gay and lesbian sexual activity and gay marriage as well. The coup de grace for me was when Bishop Sano decided that we must support these cultural trends as an act of ‘Biblical Obedience’. As a NT scholar who has spent the last thirty five years of my life exegeting the NT and writing commentaries on all the books of the NT, this frankly was a bridge too far. So the following is the first part of my response, in four blog posts.

First of all let’s address the presuppositional issue that people are born gay or lesbian. In fact, the scientific jury is still out on that matter. I am not a scientist but I take seriously what good scientists like Francis Collins and others say on the matter. So far, there has been no discovery of a ‘gay’ gene. So far, the study of zygote twins, one of whom chooses a gay lifestyle the other of whom chooses a heterosexual lifestyle, also does not really support such a claim. Here I would refer you to the more than ample data amassed by Dr. Robert Gagnon on his website— www.robgagnon.net/ and I would refer you as well to his important book Homosexuality and Biblical Practice, published by Abingdon some years ago.

As for Francis Collins, here is an important quote:

“An area of particularly strong public interest is the genetic basis of homosexuality. Evidence from twin studies does in fact support the conclusion that heritable factors play a role in male homosexuality. However, the likelihood that the identical twin of a homosexual male will also be gay is about 20% (compared with 2-4 percent of males in the general population), indicating that sexual orientation is genetically influenced but not hardwired by DNA, and that whatever genes are involved represent predispositions, not predeterminations.” (This is found in the Appendix to his book The Language of God, p. 260). He has further qualified this more recently by saying as of yet no gay gene has yet been found, but there may be such a discovery in the future.

So what should we make of this statement by Collins? That there are certain tendencies or dispositions or inclinations in some persons from birth that lead to same-sex attraction. Fair enough. But what Collins adds is just as important– “sexual orientation is genetically influenced but not hardwired by DNA, and that whatever genes are involved represent predispositions, not predeterminations”. In other words…… we have a choice about our sexual behavior. We are not predetermined from birth to behave in a certain way.

But for the sake of argument let’s assume some persons do have such ‘gay’ inclinations or predispositions from birth. Why exactly would we see this as necessarily a good thing? After all there are such things as birth defects, bad genetics, and so on. Why should we assume that simply because one is ‘born that way’ that therefore ‘God made me this way’ and that thus necessarily this must be declared to be good? If we look at this from an strictly evolutionary point of view, any species that develops tendencies towards relationships with other members of the same species that cannot result in the propagation of that species is a dead end. It is a non-productive activity vis a vis the survival of the species. Why exactly this is never a part of the conversation is hard to fathom.

This whole line of thought (‘that I was born this way and so this must be good’) totally and completely ignores a crucial Christian concept—namely human fallenness. Not everything in its present condition is good. And when it comes to human beings, here is the truth according to Scripture—- “all have sinned and fallen short (or lack) God’s glory” (Rom. 8). The Biblical message about our human condition is that we are all in our present condition sinners, and as such we have a rather infinite capacity for rationalizing our bad behavior. Self-justification in fact has become an art form in our overly sexualized and narcissistic culture.

In short, there is neither a scientific nor a Biblical basis for saying ‘because someone is born that way, that is necessarily a good thing and must be endorsed or celebrated’. Not so. And I would reiterate the point that ‘predispositions are not the same thing as predeterminations’.

In fact, as Collins and others also say, there are a bevy of factors which contribute to a person’s sexual behavior, some having to do with nature, and some definitely having to do with nurture, environment, education, friendships and so on. In any case, it is not true that a person is hard-wired and cannot help behaving in this way or that when it comes to sexual expression.

The issue in any case in the Bible is not ‘sexual orientation’ or even sexual inclinations. The former is a phrase invented in my lifetime. The issue in the Bible is sexual behavior. Period. The assumption throughout the NT is that by the grace of God and the help of the Holy Spirit we have control over our behavior. When we cease to believe that fact, we have given up the whole notion that grace and the Spirit of God can enable us to behave in good and godly ways. We will discuss a different presupposition usually brought into this discussion in the next post.

Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview, Part 2
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview Part 4
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’–The Interview Part Six
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview Part 5
  • David

    Very useful article Ben. However you wrote: “The issue in any case in the Bible is not ‘sexual orientation’ or even sexual inclinations. The former is a phrase invented in my lifetime. The issue in the Bible is sexual behavior. Period”. My question is what about Jesus’ various statement’s that sin begins in the mind and heart – e.g such as lust being adultery and hatred being murder?. On this score therefore can a persons with deep same-sex attractions ever re-orient him/herself such that they are heterosexual not merely in practice but in mind and heart, or this this an exercise in futility an frustration?

  • BenW3

    David sinful inclinations are of course sinful, but they are not the focus of NT ethics, which is all about behavior. Yes, Jesus says such inclinations are sinful, and says what goes on in the heart matters, but it is one thing to have such inclinations, it is another thing to act on them, and the focus in the NT is on the action. All of us have sinful inclinations of one sort or another, but it is what we do with them that makes all the difference. Do we repent, or do we act on those inclinations. Even the Psalmist taught us to pray, cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Spirit, but that is a matter for God’s action. Ethics is about our human actions, hence the NT focus. BW3

  • Spencer Wentland

    I think Bishop Sano is on to something. The Church needs to do a better job of responding to the eunuch category whether as an order of creation and/or as a calling in the kingdom. I think here Jesus is referencing Isaiah and speaking of the inclusivity of sexual minorities. I don’t think it means GLBT folks specifically but I think it could include them. Not everyone has the grace to live a heteronormative life and clearly not all are called to it. Thankfully the new covenant is not only in inclusive of people outside of this norm but has a unique place for them. This unique place is precisely what I think the Church must be more investigative and articulate about in a context of the kingdom broadly speaking but in the Church in terms of pastoral theology and in the context of the justice of the kingdom as it pertains to ethics and moral deliberation. I’m not suggesting, as Bishop Sano does, that, that unique place should be defined by culture or that it is gay marriage.

  • OwenW

    I echo much of what you say, Dr. Witherington. There is a lot of ideology out there in regards to human sexuality and identity, partly our culture works under the logic of “if it is nature, it is not a moral issue” (nevermind that what makes humans so distinctly human is that we don’t simply give in to ‘nature’). So, an attempt is to try to make homosexuality simply a genetic issue, and in response, others treat sexuality as purely about choice, so as to continue to frame in entirely as a moral issue (although, our culture is increasingly adopting the stance that choices should not be a moral issue either).

    But I do have a small bit of pushback on a couple of points.

    First, this my be subtle, but in my experience, much of what we conceptualize as “homosexual orientation” is often really sexual *identity*, that is, a concept of ourselves that has *accepted* inclinations as who something thinks they inevitably are. This is a subtle distinction, but important to distinguish, because I do believe that there was a subtle sense of identity in Biblical ethics also. An inclination is something we feel but may wish to not act upon and may regulate; modern definition of orientation blurs the lines between inclination and identity, as it suggests more of what we accept as *who* we are, rather than simply *what* we can feel.

    Regarding Biblical identity, how else could Paul talk about the sinful characters of the Corinthians and say “such were some of you,” in Corinthians 6:9-10 when he pretty clearly thinks that they are not performing right actions? I would say it is because Paul is talking about the identity of the persons that is described by such actions, not simply the actions themselves (I would say that Paul has a sense of a ‘progressive/eschatological identity’, that is, the follower of Christ has a charachter that is formed towards Jesus’ pattern and away from other sinful patterns, but one’s behavior may still be sinful at times). After all, elsewhere, Paul rebukes the Corinthian for their sense of party-person identification (“I of Peter” stuff), and thus operates at the level of ‘identity.’ For Paul, I would say his sense of identity was ALMOST as important as behavior. [But to clarify, I do not mean 'identity' simply in the modern psycho-therapeutic sense, but that is one particular form of identity. But the broader sense of identity is a very frequently used and automatic way of thinking about ourselves others, however it is construed, and it may or may not be related to behavior.]

    So I wonder if we need a further distinction beyond simply ‘orientation’ and ‘behavior’. We also have to make talk for identity and to say that homosexual identity is an identity foreign to God’s calling on the Body of Christ. More broadly, we can talk about ‘inclination’ as temptations to things we feel we can exercise control over, ‘identity’ as what we feel that we truly are (although, there are forms of identities we may take for ourselves that we wish we did not have), and ‘behavior’ as what we do. All three have Biblical analogues and the three-pattern allows us to speak also to persons who consider themselves a particular ‘identity’ but do not practice it because they do not want to be punished for ‘behavior’, but they feel they should be allow to behave out the identity they have for themselves.

    Secondly, I have some reservations about saying homosexuality is a choice (particuarly idendity). I would rather state, we CAN make choices about it, but that many people do just ‘automatically’ feel as they do. They didn’t choose to be the way they feel, but genes and social environment lead them to unthinkingly construct their sense of who they are as gay or lesbian. But, the choices we make can effect how we respond to the issue in ourselves and others down the road and what type of person we adapt and grow into, but that we need not frame sexuality in terms of ‘choice.’ That said, that doesn’t absolve any moral responsibility, as the Fall is in part about our moral weakness DESPITE any personal choices and also we still have the ability to make choices after our preferences have formed (albeit, such choices later on can carry higher burdens and more costs to bring to fruition).

  • Jack Brooks

    What if sexual attractions begin in an ill-formed state in a child, no different than any other emotional attribute — a capacity for aggression, for instance, or wariness of danger. Children don’t spring from the womb fully formed in personality. Our emotions need training as much as our intellects or bodies. Then add to this the Scriptural teaching that the human personality is infected from birth with inherited sin, which has the power to corrupt the natural order on every level. A sin-damaged and untrained desire for sex may reach out toward the same sex, the opposite sex, or both, or perhaps neither. http://www.ironworkspikechurch.org

  • http://russellbrownworth.blogspot.com/ Russell Brownworth

    Regarding this part of the post:
    “The Biblical message about our human condition is that we are all in our present condition sinners, and as such we have a rather infinite capacity for rationalizing our bad behavior. Self-justification in fact has become an art form in our overly sexualized and narcissistic culture.”

    Here’s my 2-cents worth on inclination vs behavior :

    Somewhere there must be a gene to explain my overwhelming behavior with chocolate ice cream. I love it so much I’m going to be 450 lbs when I finally get enough! Can’t we get a discussion going to relieve me of this awful guilt over that antiquated passage on gluttony?

  • http://mrodor.blogspot.com/ Micah

    Good word, Doctor.

  • Melvinvines

    Being homosexual is mostly based on environment and social factors, according to new research…


  • Bill Fitzgerrel

    I had it pointed out to me years ago that Paul’s discussion in Romans 1 about the development of sinful behaviors among pagans was a judgment. In Romans 1:24, 26, and 28, God “gave them over” (NIV) to various sins, including homosexuality. The word is paradidomi, which is used, for example, of Judas handing Jesus over to the Jewish leaders and of Saul (Paul) arresting Christians. So, God handed people over to all sorts of degrading sins as a consequence of their idolatry. This was an action on the part of God (it seems to me) to accentuate the spiritual bankruptcy of their paganism. Paul eventual turns on the Jew and demonstrates their own spiritual bankruptcy (2:17ff). The final conclusion is that all have sinned (3:23). Moreover, the utter collapse of all human wisdom and human righteousness has brought the world to the point that “every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.” (3:19) At that point, hopefully, the world can hear the new way, which is the way of righteousness by faith (3:21). Now, back to Romans 1, it seems to me that western society, especially American society, has come back around to the condition of the pagans of Paul’s day. The utter rejection of the gospel by the prevailing culture has resulted in God’s giving our society over to “sexual impurity” (1:24), to “shameful lusts” (1:26), and to a “depraved mind” (the famous “reprobate mind”) (1:28) so that we are “filled with every kind of wickedness” (1:29). See the list of those evils in 1:29b and following. The church is caught in the midst of this maelstrom of spiritual declension and depravity. It seems like we should see this as an opportunity and not a defeat. It is an opportunity to preach the truth that sin does not please God, but one can be reconciled to God through the grace that found in the cross of Jesus Christ. There is a “gay agenda” to put the church on the defensive and box her into a corner as the gay sector tries to gain the moral high ground. We need prayerfully and lovingly reject that propaganda and speak the truth in love (one of Wesley’s favorite Biblical references). People deep in the hearts are hungry for that kind of truth and only the church can give it to them.

  • Trent whalin

    Collins gives too much credit to genes. He apparently has not figured out why twins may be more likely to be both homosexual than the rest of the population and that is for the most part they share the same environmental factors but, rarely the exact which is why there is a disparity.