James V. Brownson, professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary (Holland MI), in Bible, Gender and Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships challenges traditional thinking about homosexuality what values sustain the Bible’s statements about sexuality (his big idea is the kinship bond of “one flesh”) and he also challenges the boundaries traditional thinking has affirmed.
Thus, in the previous post he sketched patriarchy, one flesh, procreation and celibacy — four traditional sustaining points — and he found each of them in need of re-thinking. In this post I will sketch his views on lust and desire, purity and impurity, honor and shame, and nature. These are the traditional four categories that establish the boundaries.
Are these the four standard “boundary” arguments in your world? Which is the most compelling? which is the least compelling?
The big text in this discussion, and it’s unfair to call it a “clobber” text unless it is being used thoughtlessly (some do, most don’t), is Romans 1:24-27, and this text is esp the focus for Brownson’s challenges:
Rom. 1:24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
Rom. 1:26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Lust and desire: Paul expects his readers to identify with his outrage over these sins; it is excessive self-centered desire. Words like lusts, passions, consumed, burning, and with passion are at work here. Same-sex relations were seen in the Roman and Greek world as characterizing insatiable desire and discontent with normal sexual relations. It is possible Paul is describing a former emperor, Gaius Caligula. Desire is not evil; excessive desire is. The focus on the text, so says Brownson, is not on same-sex desire but excessive desire. The Bible does not permit a sharp distinction between sinful desire and sinful practices; if the practice is sinful, desire for it is sinful. Same-sex desire, then, if sinful would be wrong and that means the typical distinction between orientation (desires etc) and practices (same-sex relations) is not as legitimate as many would say. He believes same-sex relations not characterized by excessive desire, passion, lust are not in view in this text.
Purity and impurity: The OT defines purity as conforming to created order, safeguarding life, and Israel’s distinctiveness. The NT has three movements when it comes to purity: away from the external toward the internal, away from separation toward Spirit empoweredness, and away from replication of creation to the new creation. For Paul then same-sex impurity is about the internal disposition of lust and desire.
Honor and shame: same-sex relations are shameful according to Romans 1:24-27. This language emerges from public status and esteem and where roles are defined. “Their women” in 1:26 is about dishonorable forms of heterosexual intercourse. Degrading acts is about same-sex excessive lust relations. Honorable category fluctuates from one culture to another. What is shameful then is the excessiveness and violating nature of these sexual relations. He asks if same-sex fits this in our culture.
Nature: this is the big one. The word “nature” is not an OT word; it is a Greco-Roman and post canonical Jewish category. In the ancient world there are three dimensions to “nature”:
1. One’s individual nature or disposition.
2. What contributed to the good order of society, so “order” is the sense. This means “nature” is social convention.
3. Biological processes, including procreativity. But he observes the word “nature” is not connected in the ancient world to sexual organs.
These three do not convene as neatly in our world as they did then. Nature also needs to be connected to “new creation” and not just “old” creation.