Robert Gagnon, author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice, responds in this guest post to Justin Lee, executive director of the Gay Christian Network and author of Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate. I’m grateful to Gagnon and to Lee for the conversation, and to be clear, I would also welcome Lee to respond here as well.
I have seen your blog post, “Missing the forest for the A/Bs,” which constitutes your response to my Patheos piece, “Does Leviticus Only Condemn Idolatrous Homosexual Practice? – An Open Letter from Robert Gagnon.” It is a shame you could not have notified me directly when you posted this response, as I notified you of my article in Patheos and indeed had conversation with you privately before posting it. I have three main observations in response to your blog post.
First, I’m sorry to say this but, just as you misrepresented my position on the Levitical prohibitions in your book, so now you are misrepresenting the function of your citation of me in your book. It seems to me that you are doing so in order that you can exonerate yourself from the charge of deliberately misleading readers. In fact, you are just continuing the practice of misleading readers.
You now claim that it should have been “obvious” to readers of your book Torn that you were not asserting that I thought the Levitical prohibitions of male homosexual practice were limited to idolatrous or cultic contexts. In your own words:
“I would have thought that was obvious from my description of him in the book as a Side B scholar [i.e., someone who argues against homosexual sex]; that was the whole point. Did any readers honestly come away with any other impression? If so, I most definitely apologize.”
Doubtlessly you will respond again by saying, “What does the guy want from me? Look, I already apologized!” Justin, it is not much of an apology to apologize only for possibly giving the wrong impression to readers too careless or obtuse to realize the “obvious.” Moreover, your justification in your blog post for writing as you did in your book doesn’t match up with what you actually wrote in your book, not by a long shot.
I never claimed that you characterized me as a supporter of homosexual relationships or in any way were vague on this matter. On the contrary, in your book you clearly characterize me (in a purely negative formulation) as someone “who has spent much of his career studying and writing in condemnation of homosexuality.” Indeed, it would not have served your point about the Levitical prohibitions had you represented me as someone supportive of homosexual practice (a representation that in any case would have been manifestly absurd to most readers).
Rather, your whole point in this section of your book was to say that even “the foremost authority” among “the Bible scholars who argue for the traditional view (that gay sex is always a sin)” agrees with the views of “pro-gay” interpreters that the Levitical prohibitions were “actually intended to condemn ritual cult prostitution, a form of idolatry in that culture that involved male-male sex.” The views of “pro-gay” interpreters, you noted, could be dismissed because “hey, they were arguing in favor of accepting gay relationships, so they might be biased.” Then you immediately add: “What did the other side say? Pretty much the same thing, it turned out” (my emphasis; p. 177). Right after saying this you cite me as exhibit A for showing that “the other side” agrees with the conclusion of “pro-gay” interpreters.
You see the inconsistency between your presentation in your book and your current remarks? In your current revisionist remarks you claim that it should have been “obvious” to readers that I did not think that the Levitical prohibitions of male homosexual practice were limited to the context of idol cults. And why should it have been obvious? Because you clearly portray me as a scholar opposed to homosexual practice. Yet in your book you tell readers that I am a scholar who believes that homosexual sex is always wrong precisely so that you can validate your conclusion that the Levitical prohibitions probably had in view only idolatrous forms of homosexual practice. Given that even Gagnon believes “pretty much the same thing” about these prohibitions as interpreters supportive of homosexual unions believe, it must be so.
If readers of your book were mistaken in drawing the conclusion that I support your thesis about the Levitical prohibitions it was not because they were careless or obtuse readers but rather because you misled them into thinking that even a scholar opposed to all homosexual sex believed “pretty much the same thing” about these passages that those supportive of homosexual unions did. (By the way, you also left readers with the misleading impression that most biblical scholars who endorse homosexual unions think that the Levitical prohibitions are limited in their application to an idolatrous context. They do not.)
Now it is up to you to decide if you want to give a genuine public apology. I have no expectations of getting one and have not called for one. Yet if you do decide to give one, please acknowledge this obvious point that you cited my opposition to homosexual practice precisely in order to give readers the impression that even such a scholar as Gagnon thinks that the Levitical prohibitions probably don’t apply to non-idolatrous, loving homosexual relationships. That would be infinitely better than the faux apology you have thus far given. Then you might consider (though this too is entirely up to you) apologizing for the second public misrepresentation that you have now made: Claiming that readers should have understood as obvious that I did not believe that the Levitical prohibitions were limited to idolatrous acts simply because you had referred to me as a scholar who thought all “gay sex” was wrong.
Your misleading of readers in your book was all the more inexcusable in view of the fact that the one comment that you lifted from my work and then used to support your position appears in a context whose whole purpose was to demonstrate the exact opposite of what you were arguing. Indeed, even the sentences immediately preceding and immediately following clearly give reasons for why the prohibitions are applicable to all male homosexual sex. There is thus no way in which you could not have known what my position was or the array of arguments that I employed to make my case. Indeed, you have now stated in your response the obvious: that you knew all along that I did not limit the application of the Levitical prohibitions to an idolatrous context and that I had made numerous arguments to substantiate that view. Giving readers the impression that even I admitted the prohibitions aimed only at idolatrous rituals was certainly deceptive.
Your response thus far reminds one of someone whose hand is caught in the proverbial cookie jar and who then tells a second fib to extricate him-or-herself from the consequences of telling the first. In some sense the second failure to tell the truth is worse than the first. Add to that image another of deflecting guilt by blaming the one who calmly pointed out the first fib for having a bad “tone” and we pretty much have a good characterization of your blog post.
My second point is this: You are not being entirely above-board when you chastise me and others for “missing the point entirely” since “the focus” of your book is not on whether “side A” or “side B” is right but rather on “showing love and grace in the gay debate.”
For one thing, you devote two chapters in your book in explaining why you have come to the conclusion that the Bible does not oppose committed homosexual unions (or at least does not oppose such sexual activity clearly and convincingly). You couch it as “only two chapters touch on the A/B Bible debate” out of a fifteen-chapter book (my emphasis). Well, two chapters (roughly a sixth of the book in terms of total page count) is still a significant portion of the book.
The very fact that you were willing to misrepresent my views on the Levitical prohibitions (and conveniently ignore all the rest of my work) is testimony to the fact that you did think that it was important to render the Bible harmless to your views. Otherwise, you could easily have added a sentence to the effect that the quotation from my work is accompanied by a half dozen arguments for recognizing that the Levitical prohibitions are absolute in their framing. Instead, you deliberately left readers with the impression that it was otherwise with me.
Even more, if your narrative is going to be one of “disappointment” that the Bible doesn’t clearly address the issue of committed homosexual unions, aren’t you obligated to deal at least on a minimal level with arguments that do in fact show that the authors of Scripture clearly indict homosexual practice absolutely? When you don’t mention such arguments, let alone refute them, and then express “disappointment” that the Bible provided no clear guidance to you, the whole matter has the appearance of a cover-up. Don’t be “disappointed” with the Bible not giving you clear guidance if you show no evidence of examining the full evidence anyway. Are you really “disappointed” that you didn’t “find” the Bible to have a clear position against the kind of homosexual relationship that you inwardly want to have? Or is this merely a self-fulfilled, manufactured “disappointment” on your part?
In addition, I fully understand that the “primary focus” of your book is that Christians who disagree on this issue should show more “grace” to each other. What I’m trying to figure out is how this inoculates you from owning up to misrepresentations that you do make in your book. And now I’m trying to figure out how this “primary focus” entitles you to cover up such misrepresentations in a half apology that really puts the blame on readers allegedly too clueless to recognize what you call “obvious,” then switches the issue to one of “tone” (when there is nothing wrong with the tone of my article), and throughout attempts to ridicule those who raise such concerns as persons who “miss the point entirely.”
My third main point has to do with your constant refrain about needing to “show more grace.” This refrain presupposes what grace must look like irrespective of whether the behavior you are engaging in or want to engage in represents a radical violation in sexual ethics. Yet that assumption is precisely what needs to be challenged.
There is little in your understanding of “showing grace” that could accommodate Paul’s handling of the case of the incestuous man in 1 Corinthians 5. There Paul understands “showing grace” to the offender as calling on the church at Corinth to exclude him from the life of the community until he comes to his senses and repents. That is exactly the kind of reaction that you reject as showing grace. I just think that Paul, the apostle of grace, knew more about grace than you do and that he was not being inconsistent in his application of grace in this circumstance. Nor do I think that Paul’s actions were at all contradicting the characteristics of love that he put forward later in the letter in ch. 13.
On the contrary, the Corinthian church that was not taking action against this man’s sins was guilty of being unloving and ungracious because apparently they were doing nothing to prevent the man from being excluded from the kingdom of God. Grace and love are manifested not in co-existing in the same fellowship with someone engaging in severe unrepentant sin but rather in waking up the offender to the folly of his or her actions. Then, when repentance is forthcoming, grace and love are manifested in an immediate return and embrace of the former offender without any ongoing penalties (so 2 Cor 2:5-11, which may in fact refer to the penitent incestuous man).
None of this is at odds with Jesus’ teaching about church discipline and forgiveness in Matthew 18. Jesus reached out aggressively in love to reclaim the lost, especially exploitative tax collectors and sexual sinners. There is no evidence that he allowed to remain in his circle persons who showed not the slightest inclination to repent in response to that outreach. Tax collectors were not still exploiting people economically and sexual sinners were not continuing in gross immorality. This should be clear enough from reading in Luke the conclusions of the story of the sinful woman (7:44-50), the parable of the lost son (15:21, 24, 32), the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (18:13), and the story of Zacchaeus (19:8-10). Compare also the Apostolic Decree in Acts 15 where Gentiles are not to be admitted into the church if they continue unrepentantly in sexual immorality of an egregious sort (porneia).
My point here is not to say that all offenders must immediately be put on church discipline. Unbelievers need some exposure to the gospel so that they can come to a saving knowledge of the truth and leave behind behaviors that characterize those who will not inherit the kingdom of God. Self-professed believers who persist in gross immorality may be given a limited period of time to turn from such practices. (See further my online discussion, “Church Policy as regards Homosexual Practice: Membership and Ordained Ministry”).
My point is to show that the way in which the church and individuals manifest grace and love (not whether they do so) to those with whom they disagree is determined largely by whether the beliefs or behaviors in question put the offenders at high risk of not inheriting God’s kingdom (i.e. eternal life). The way in which grace and love is manifested to a self-professed believer who has a different view about baptism or the celebration of the Lord’s Supper but still is within the pale of orthodoxy is going to be different in many respects from the way in which grace and love should be manifested to a self-professed believer who is knowingly ripping off the elderly of their life savings or having sexual relations in the context of adult-consensual incest, polyamory, or homosexual practice.
For this reason doing one’s homework about what the Scripture says about homosexual practice is indispensible for determining what the shape of grace and love will be in interacting with those who engage in homosexual practice or any other form of egregious immorality. I continue to see little evidence that you have had such a serious engagement with Scripture. I see rather avoidance of main arguments against the positions about Scripture that you espouse in your book.
You say that you are “still trying to figure out how to graciously respond” to my offer regarding a public debate of what Scripture says. You don’t want to be “pulled into the very kinds of ungracious us-versus-them battles that my whole book is about trying to avoid!” Then you say “I’ll even do a ‘debate’ if it can be done with a gracious tone and in the context of a broader dialogue about grace and understanding on both sides.”
I have no problem with doing a debate with “a gracious tone.” I’m not going to call you names or shout at you or be angry at you. I’m not going to talk over you when it is your turn to respond within an allotted time. I’m not against you but against what you are promoting as a focus (not “the primary focus”) of your life and ministry. I want your life to reflect the sexual purity that God asks of us all.
At the same time I am not going to pretend falsely that your case for not seeing Jesus and the authors of Scripture as opposed to all homosexual intercourse is as reasonable as the case for viewing Jesus and the authors of Scripture as affirming a male-female requirement for all sexual relations and as proscribing homosexual practice as among the severest of sexual offenses. The case for the former is not even remotely close to the case for the latter. I will make that evident by laying out the array of strong arguments for reading Scripture as opposed to every and any form of homosexual practice. I will listen carefully to your arguments (all of which I have heard dozens of times before, based on what I’ve read from your book). If the arguments don’t hold up to a careful reading of the biblical witness I will carefully explain why that is the case.
Now you may regard an exchange of that sort as inherently “ungracious.” You may insist that it is “ungracious” for me to publicly demonstrate and document that your views on the Bible and homosexual practice have little to commend them from a literary, historical, and hermeneutical vantage point. May I suggest that if this is what you regard as ungracious you are merely seeking cover from a rigorous examination of your presuppositions?
We can certainly extend the discussion to “a dialogue about grace and understanding on both sides.” In fact, you can do anything you want with the time allotted to you. I will certainly address what grace and love look like when responding to a self-professed Christian who is engaging in, or is looking for opportunities to engage in, or is encouraging others to engage in what the writers of Scripture and Jesus view as sexually immoral practices that can endanger the offender’s inheritance of the kingdom of God. But I will spend most of my time in making the case from Scripture and, to a lesser extent, philosophical reasoning and science, since how grace and love is to be manifested will be determined largely from whether the behavior in question constitutes immorality of an egregious sort.
You mention Matthew Vines. If you want to have him there with you, great, the more the merrier—as long as the time given to me equals the time given to both of you collectively. So if each of you wants to take 35-40 minutes in your initial presentation, then I would be allowed 35-40 minutes before or after Matthew and 35-40 minutes before or after you. If each of you are allowed 10 minutes to respond to my presentations, then I would be allowed 10 minutes to respond to Matthew and 10 minutes to respond to you. The same would apply to our time of responding to questions from the audience. Time will be scarce but I’m willing to take 10 minutes out of my presentation time to address what “gracious interaction” means. You can take that time and more, if you wish, to address the same topic.
So how about it? If I get your go-ahead we can see what church or churches might be interested in funding such an event (I’m sure that we will have no problem finding one). I recommend having the whole thing on video so that others can have the benefit of seeing our engagement in these important matters.