Robert Gagnon. The Bible and Homosexual Practice

Robert A. J. Gagnon. The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics. Abingdon, 2001.

Reviewed by Ted Grimsrud (here are my other writings on “homosexuality”)—[this was written in 2004 and first posted in 2009]

One takes up Robert Gagnon’s book with some hopefulness given the wide-ranging laudatory blurbs on the dust cover and inside from a wide variety of extraordinarily prominent biblical scholars.Present-day Christians certainly are in dire need for careful, thorough biblical and theological scholarship that treats the issue of homosexuality as a problem to be solved and not as an argument to be won.The old scholarly virtue of objectivity – writers carefully, respectfully, and as accurately as possible considering all relevant points of view – has been sadly lacking in most of the reading I have done.


Gagnon’s introduction early on gives signals that he will not likely be providing a careful, respectful, and aspiring-to-objectivity approach.His unwillingness or inability to provide a level playing field for the various perspectives he will be considering may be seen in his juxtaposition of the two general approaches he sees being followed in relation to the issue of homosexuality and the Christian churches (page 26).

The one side appeals to explicit statements in Scripture regarding same-sex intercourse, the structures of God’s creation, principles of sexual holiness, two millennia of church tradition, the influence of the environment on the development of homosexuality, the dearth of long-term and monogamous homosexual relationships, and the negative health effects of homosexual behavior.

The other side appeals to genetic causation, the fruit of caring homosexual relationships, the antiquated worldview and obsolescence of other parts of Scripture, and such Christian virtues as tolerance and inclusion.

It seems obvious that he is setting up this polarity in order utterly to refute the pro-gay viewpoints.In what follows throughout this long book, Gagnon will always understand the approach of the anti-gay side to be based on solid methods and the approach of the pro-gay side to be based on faulty methods. He gives no sense of what problems with anti-gay assumptions and methods might be and no sense of any validity resting with pro-gay assumptions and methods.

In these early pages, where one would hope for careful definitions of terminology that will provide some standard with which to hold usage accountable (and to provide a stability and clarity concerning what actually is being discussed), we find no attempt carefully to define terms such as “homosexual,” “homosexuality,” and “homosexual practice.”This lack greatly weakens the strength of Gagnon’s argument that follows because he is not carefully constructing a position based on solid reasoning for each piece in the argument.

Gagnon uses the term “homosexual practice” in an apparently all-inclusive sense of both males and females.In so doing, often he is referring only to evidence that has to do only with males (for example, much later when he uses incidents of health problems gay men have as a basis to condemn “homosexual practice”; also just about all the biblical references are to males).This uncritical lumping together of same-sexer males and females ignores huge (seemingly qualitative) differences between the experiences of the two sexes.

Gagnon seems eager to make global generalizations that apply to all possible same-sex intimate relationships.In order to do, he must minimize the specific contextual factors that shape both the particular biblical references and the actual experience of same-sexers.When, for example, Leviticus 18 and 20 speak of the “abomination” of “males lying with males,” the more one focuses on the specific concerns likely reflected in that legislation that surely relate exclusively to issues related to males in ancient Israel, the more difficulty one will have in directly applying this prohibition to lesbians.

It seems to me that a condemnation of same-sex sexuality as inherently wrong should apply to all types of same-sex relationships.If not, then the problem with the particular behavior is better seen as specific to that behavior, not a general condemnation of same sex partners (e.g., promiscuity, anal sex, rape, pedophilia).

Gagnon in general often seems to be reducing “homosexuality” to sexual intercourse, or at least to be extra preoccupied with that aspect.Leaving aside the question in what sense it is meaningful to speak of two women having “intercourse,” it is important to note that for heterosexual couples in intimate long-term relationships, sexual intercourse is a relatively small (though, of course, often extraordinarily important and meaningful) element of their relationship.Surely this is also the case for same-sexers in long-term partnerships.This point underscores a point that Gagnon seems oblivious to – there are logically just as many “homosexualities” as there are “heterosexualities” (e.g., one-night stands, coercive relationships, long-term monogamous partnerships).

Throughout the introduction, the only references that Gagnon makes to his opponents’ views are pejorative and dismissive.He makes statements such as the motivation of people who are pro-gay stems from a desire to wear “a badge of intellectual open-mindedness and membership among the avant-garde of cultured society” (26).

Gagnon does mention that he supports vigorously denouncing “anti-homosexual violence.”However, he does not develop this point to any extent.He cites no cases and “denounces” no specifics.He also immediately qualifies this “denouncing responsibility” by calling “incidents of violence against homosexuals…isolated and relatively rare.”In contrast, he cites as more dangerous how these supposedly isolated and rare cases are used in “stifling” and “coercive” ways to pressure people in the churches and broader culture to endorse “homosexual practice” (30).The only allusion Gagnon makes to specific cases of people being persecuted over issues related to homosexuality is to the persecution of people like himself who oppose “homosexual practice” (35).

Hence, Gagnon apparently is not willing to see the tradition and on-going present-day experience of violence and hostility that many same-sexers testify to as a significant part of the churches’ discernment processes.He presents the issue of persecution and oppression as essentially a wash between same-sexers and their opponents.Consequently, persecution and oppression are not part of what we need to factor in to our discussions now.He seems to be saying that we simply need focus on the sexual practices of same-sexers as our main morally significant issue.

In his introductory comments about “homosexual practice,” Gagnon brings up the emotionally evocative but essentially ad hominim examples of AIDs, “pick-up murders,” and “domestic violence and sadomasochism” (30, 37) as if these are intrinsically part of the discussion of “homosexual practice.”However, these problems have nothing to do with homosexuality per se, no more than men raping women and male/female domestic abuse have to do with “heterosexuality” per se.In fact, these problems could be seen as bases for arguing for the churches supporting same-sex unions and offering their resources to provide support for covenanted, monogamous, loving relationships as a means of overcoming the problems of AIDs, “pick-up murders,” and “domestic violence and sadomasochism.”

Gagnon seems to assume that sexual behavior is the central issue determining whether believers’ lives are characterized by holiness.He implicitly defines “holy living” in terms of following “rules” for sexual purity and living free from sin – “sin” defined in terms of breaking rules (34).Certainly the Bible does convey concern about sexual morality when it addresses holiness.However, ironically in light of Gagnon’s later use of Leviticus, when we look at one of the core Old Testament texts that elaborates on the call to holiness (Lev 19), we find at the core of concern there a definition of “holy living” in terms of caring for the neighbor, especially vulnerable and marginalized neighbors (orphans, widows, aliens).Throughout this book, Gagnon refuses to factor in the Bible’s special concern for vulnerable, marginalized people as relevant for our discernment concerning same-sexers.

Gagnon, though he is a biblical scholar and focuses his energies on expositing the Bible, nonetheless does draw heavily on assumptions about what is “natural” that are based more on “common sense” (or cultural biases) than on biblical theology, though he asserts (without explicit evidence) that the Bible bases its perspective on these sense of what’s “natural.”“The Bible presents the anatomical, sexual, and procreative complementarity of male and female as clear and convincing proof of God’s will for sexual unions” (37).As we will see below, Gagnon’s basis for what the “Bible presents” on these themes is far short of clear proof; it’s argument based mostly on silence and the tenuous linking of weak allusions.“Same-sex intercourse constitutes an inexcusable rebellion against the intentional design of the created order” (37).This is an assumption Gagnon brings to the text and then claims to have established as a biblical concern.“It [same-sex intercourse] degrades the participants when they disregard nature’s obvious clues” (37).Here we are getting at what appears to be some of Gagnon’s energy concerning this issue – he finds same-sex intimacy to be “degrading” and “unnatural” but does not reflect on how these gut feelings might be quite vulnerable to being shaped more by cultural biases than careful reasoning shaped by the good news Jesus embodied.

From the start, Gagnon is imprecise in his use of his central term, “homosexual practice.”Because of this imprecision, Gagnon is able to make broad generalizations and, especially problematically, to use emotionally evocative examples of obviously problematic “practices” as if they are characteristic of all “homosexual practice.”He never carefully defines what he means by “homosexual practice.”It appears that he means sexual intercourse, but he does not explain what he means by “intercourse” or explain why it is “practice.”He does not speak to where the line is to be drawn between morally acceptable physical and emotional connections and unacceptable ones.By citing obviously destructive sexual practices in this context without qualification, he seems implicitly to be denying a moral distinction between obviously destructive practices and non-obviously destructive practices.However, part of his overall argument will be that “homosexual practice” is destructive, the destructiveness seemingly inherent in the same-sexness of this practice.

The Witness of the Old Testament.

Gagnon’s argument from the Old Testament begins with his discussion of Genesis’s creation account.Without warrant he smuggles in an “only” when he asserts that the writer recognizes that the “part fit” male to female only and complementarity is achieved only in opposite sex unions (63).I would say that one can recognize that Genesis 2:24 (“Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh”) is about complementarity, but that there is no logical (and certainly not textual) basis to infer the “only” from this.

Likewise, Gagnon’s assertion that Genesis one and Genesis two are “in complete agreement over the exclusive claim to complementarity possessed by heterosexual unions” (63, emphasis added) is unwarranted.The affirmation of the male/female union says nothing about exceptions one way or the other, with no necessarily assumption about exclusivity.

Genesis 2:24 is clearly anachronistic (did Adam leave his parents to be with Eve?! – for that matter, was the male leaving his own family ever the norm in biblical cultures?).The notion of “one flesh” is not the norm in the entire Old Testament.What major Old Testament male character was not a polygamist?That is to say, in considering a text such as Genesis 2:24, one must seek to figure out the context and purpose of such a statement.It will not due simply to take the verse out of context and set it up as the basis for timeless norms.

Gagnon presents a creative reading of the story of Ham and Noah in Genesis 9:20-27 that threatens to undermine his entire project.He takes an utterly ambiguous story and reads into it harsh antipathy toward “homosexual practice,” revealing the single-minded intensity of his agenda – almost in spite of the actual text.

The passage literally refers to Ham “uncovering Noah’s nakedness.”This could be a euphemism for raping his father in order to gain dominance.Gagnon provides a plausible circumstantial argument for this reading.It is possible and makes some sense, but it is not the obvious or commonly-held interpretation.But Gagnon then concludes “it can hardly be doubted that the element of same-sex intercourse was an important compounding factor leading to the curse” (69, emphasis added)!He has not provided any clear evidence to suggest that this interpretation is the best way to read the text – and certainly not that it “can hardly be doubted”!

Though the Bible nowhere explicitly mentions “homosexual incest,” Gagnon draws the conclusion from the Ham story that “incestuous homosexual practice counted as two heinous acts, not one: incest and homosexual practice” (70).Notably, Gagnon uses his general, all-encompassing term “homosexual practice” here.Even if the Ham story is about the son raping his father, this can hardly be seen as the moral equivalent to a present-day, covenanted, mutually enriching same-sex partnership.As well, Gagnon’s assertion that Ham’s “curse” would have been linked with his “homosexual practice” suffers from an utter lack of support in any biblical reference or allusion.

Gagnon seems to equate “homosexual orientation” with “depraved, same-sex lust” (70).He does not seem to feel that he has to establish why this linking is valid; he simply asserts it.He states, “the question of homosexual orientation was surely irrelevant to the denunciation of same sex intercourse” (70, emphasis added).We are still dealing with the Ham story here.Gagnon now states it as a fact that this story is a “denunciation of same-sex intercourse” and that he is certain that orientation is irrelevant to the condemnation of Ham’s “homosexual practice.”All this in relation to an extraordinarily obscure allusion that has no obvious connection with “homosexual practice.”

Gagnon also argues here, and throughout the book, that the issue of orientation is morally irrelevant in the biblical materials; what matters is “the act” (70).Of course, he infers way too much thickness to the precious few and almost totally cryptic allusions to males having sex with males in the entire Bible.That is, he assumes much more clarity about what the Bible has in mind concerning “the act” than the Bible actually provides.

However, we may grant his point that the Bible is not concerned about orientation.How to apply that point, though, is part of the contested terrain in present-day discussions.It is troubling that Gagnon shows so little respect toward those on the other side of this issue, with no indication that he is open to taking their arguments seriously as part of a dialogue meant to foster greater understanding by all parties.Rather, he simply ignores, or at most mentions in order to dismiss, perspectives different than his own.

Gagnon’s view concerning the orientation issue seems to be that if the Bible was not concerned with orientation we should not be either.Others would say that it is precisely at this point that we bump up against the limits of the biblical moral guidance.Present-day understandings of sexual orientation are the result of the work of the human sciences just over the past century or so.They may provide insights that go beyond those available to biblical writers concerning human behavior.That the Bible teaches nothing about sexual orientation, then, would not be an indication that we should minimize the relevance of orientation but rather would be a reason to complement the Bible’s teachings with other understandings.

When Gagnon turns to the Sodom and Gomorrah story, we see his methodology illustrated again.Rather than considering the evidence for why Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, thereby acknowledging that this is an issue over which people disagree, Gagnon starts with the assertion that only something as heinous as attempted homosexual rape could explain why God would wipe the cities out.His logic seems to run, we all know that “homosexual practice” is extraordinarily evil and thus when these cities are punished it must be because of their homosexuality.

Gagnon minimizes the possibility that the violation of hospitality could be in itself a serious enough problem (it couldn’t be “merely inhospitality or even attempted rape of a guest,” 75 – we all know that those problems couldn’t be serious enough; it had to be the element of homosexuality).This ignores the significance of the beginning story in this section of Genesis 18 and 19 – where Abraham models authentic hospitality and sets the standard for hospitality that will grievously not be met by the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.

From the start, Gagnon seems to be assuming the worst about same-sex partnerships, taking it for granted that homosexuality must have been terrible and extraordinarily repulusive to the biblical characters.Yet, we have next to no clear evidence of this in the texts (beyond the cryptic commands in Leviticus to be discussed below).We have no stories comparable to David’s adultery with Bathsheba or Amnon’s rape of Tamar to illustrate what is so problematic about such behavior.On the other hand, the Old Testament is quite clear about the problematic nature of mistreatment of vulnerable people.

The stories of Ham (who had descendants) and of Sodom (where “all the men” were involved in the threatened gang rape, including presumably the male spouses of Lot’s daughters) are clearly about “normal” (i.e., heterosexual) men doing sexual violence, not about anything remotely akin to present-day same-sex covenanted partnerships.Gagnon seems committed to denying that there is a meaningful moral difference between these two types of phenomena – though he does not justify this denial.

Gagnon cavalierly uses terms such as “undoubtedly” often, with little or no justification for why there can be no doubt.For example, how can we say without doubt that the Yahwist, who never elaborates on same-sex relationships at all, would undoubtedly see “consenting homosexual intercourse” as a matter of the “participants willingly degrading themselves” (78)?

Throughout the book Gagnon seems to be assuming that “a man lying with a man as with a woman” is strictly about “penetration” (i.e., anal intercourse).However, few of us would associate “lying with a woman” with anal sex!This reflects his preoccupation with sexual intercourse and his reducing the issue of “homosexual practice” to that of genital sex – ignoring that possibility that same-sexers, like heterosexual couples, tend to experience sexual intercourse in the context of a much wider experience of intimacy (physical and emotional) and commitment.

Gagnon infers a strong claim by inclusive thinkers when he writes, “rather than argue that the narrators of the twin stories of Sodom and Gomorrah would have changed their perspective on homosexual intercourse had they only had a modern understanding of sexual orientation, it is more plausible to say that it probably would not have made any difference to them” (97).

Besides fabricating a “perspective on homosexual intercourse” in these biblical texts and drawing a fantastical conclusion about how the ancient writers would “probably” have responded to modern views of sexual orientation, Gagnon creates a straw man concerning the inclusivist argument here.There is no need (or no attempt made by anyone I know of; Gagnon cites no examples) to argue that those writers would “change their perspective” if they only had a modern sensibility.That argument is an irrelevant anachronism.The point for inclusivists need only be, at most, that there is no relevant connection between those stories and the present-day acceptability of same-sex covenanted relationships.In part, this point is based on a distinction that Gagnon refuses to make between violent, dominating sexual behavior and mutual, loving sexual behavior (a distinction that everyone accepts for heterosexuals).Gagnon’s argument regarding the Old Testament depends upon the moral equation of homosexual rape and homosexual temple prostitution with same-sex covenanted relationships, a moral equation no one would make concerning heterosexuals.

The key text in the Old Testament is Leviticus 18–20

In his discussion of Leviticus 18:6-23, Gagnon concludes that the key point here is that the prohibitions listed here do, as a whole, provide direction that remains normative for Christians concerning sexual behavior.However, his ignoring the prohibition that does not have anything to do with sex indicates that his generalizations are likely not warranted.That is, that one prohibition is not about sex (vs. child sacrifice) would indicate that the commonality among these prohibitions is not that they are “forbidden sexual relations” (113).And that at least one of the prohibitions is not considered a taboo today by most Christians (sex during menstruation) would indicate that simply being on this list does not in and of itself mean a prohibition has “universal validity in contemporary society” (113).

One concern that does seem to apply to all the items on the list and to make sense in the context of Leviticus, is the concern for adding children to the community.The ancient Israelites needed children – and the children needed to be “legitimate” – to carry on their community life (which is the core concern of Torah as a whole).The problem with these various types of sexual behavior is that they could not result in “legitimate” offspring – and, obviously, child sacrifice also would be a problem in terms the community adding children to its midst.

As well, the fact that especially incest, adultery, and child sacrifice are condemned in other settings in the Bible, with reasons and stories, would seem to indicate that the prohibition of male/male sex has more in common with the prohibition of sex during menstruation (neither is given a rationale elsewhere in the Bible) than the other prohibitions.

That male/male sex (not “homosexual intercourse” as Gagnon states, 113) is the only specific act called an “abomination” in all the priestly corpus is interesting – but almost proves too much.That is, how can “abomination” be such an important category if this is the only act directly so labeled?How can male/male sex as abomination be so significant when the meaning of this prohibition is so obscure, never discussed elsewhere in the Old Testament?

The calling for death to violators of the male/male sex prohibition must be taken seriously.Since we, including Gagnon, do not call for using the death penalty for “homosexual practice” today, in some sense we are saying that Leviticus 20:13 is not to be applied literally in our setting.What are our bases for qualifying its application?Why would the death penalty be prescribed and what might this prescription tell us about the context of the prohibition and its meaning?Gagnon simply says that the provision for the death penalty means “homosexuality” is especially bad (114-5).However, he does not probe into what clues that prescription might offer for helping us understand the meaning of the condemnation of male/male sex in Leviticus.

Might it be possible that Gagnon’s failure to address the issue in this way reflects his desire to find in Leviticus a general, universalizable basis for his pre-existing assumption that “homosexual practice” is wrong?That is, looking more closely at what in the particular context of Leviticus would have led to linking the death penalty with the prohibition against male/male sex might actually lead us to see the concern as something quite specific to that particular context and not universalizable (as seems to be the case with the prohibition against sex during menstruation).

Gagnon argues that the most meaningful parallel within the list of prohibitions in Leviticus is not sex during menstruation but adultery and incest (114-5).However, this parallel seems less than obvious, since in the cases both of adultery and incest there are New Testament stories underscoring the problematic nature of the given behavior and providing direct bases for Christian prohibitions.There are none such in relation to male/male sex.

Gagnon asserts that the laws in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are “unqualified and absolute” (115).One could just as easily say, based on what the texts themselves actually say (and do not say) that these laws are cryptic and merely formal (i.e., not applied).Gagnon asserts that “homosexual acts” are portrayed as “intrinsically evil” in Leviticus 18, 20 (118).Yet this assertion is difficult to sustain given the lack of supporting evidence (no elaboration in Leviticus beyond the bare prohibition and no stories illustrating the prohibition elsewhere in the Old Testament).

Gagnon states that because many Old Testament “abominations” are still seen as evil by Christians, “homosexuality” should also still be seen as evil, since it is called an “abomination” (120).He conveniently omits mention of sex with a menstruating woman, as it is an “abomination” that most Christians no longer see as evil.This example, though, shows that simply being named as an “abomination” in the Leviticus does not make something wrong for us.All the examples Gagnon cites have generally-accepted reasons to be seen as wrong.The challenge for his position is to provide reasons for labeling sexual intimacy in the context of a covenanted, healthy, loving same-sex partnership is evil other than the reference in Leviticus.

In his discussion of Leviticus, Gagnon anticipates his later argument by discussing what he sees to be the link between Leviticus and Paul.He begins by stating as a fact that Paul “formulated…opposition to same-sex intercourse.”This is his assumption at this point, not an established fact (and is, of course, strongly contested by many writers on these topics).Then Gagnon gives “evidence” for his assertion that Paul is self-consciously linking his argument with Leviticus.

Gagnon’s evidence that Paul self-consciously draws on Leviticus consists of four main points (121-2).First is that Paul alludes to the “father’s wife” in his proscribing incest in 1 Corinthians 5 using terms close to the LXX of Leviticus 18:7-8.The problem here is that neither of these texts having anything to do with same-sex “practice.”

Second, Gagnon picks up on Paul’s warning in Romans 1:32 that the behavior he as referred earlier (including, in Gagnon’s interpretation, “homosexual practice”) is “worthy of death” echoes the warning in Leviticus that men laying with men will be executed.However, unlike Leviticus 20:13, Paul in Romans 1:32 is not addressing the behavior of people in the community of faith and many, many other examples of problematic behavior are mentioned between 1:32 and the allusion to “homosexual practice” several verses earlier.In fact, the entire discussion in Romans 1:18-32 is not focused at all on giving rules for Christian behavior, whereas, of course, Leviticus 20 is completely about setting forth rules for the behavior people within the community of faith.

Gagnon’s third basis for linking Paul with Leviticus is that Paul uses a couple of the same words in Romans 1:24, 27 that are common in the LXX version of Leviticus 18, 20.However, a basic principle in interpreting texts such as the Bible is to recognize that words do not convey meaning nearly as much as sentences do.Gagnon cites no parallel sentences.Besides, theologically, it would seem unlikely that the Paul who critiques legalistic uses of Torah and summarizes Torah in Romans as consisting of loving the neighbor (13:8-10) would want his readers to see parallel words as a basis for reading him as reiterating a literalistic application of a cryptic command from Leviticus.

The fourth point is that Gagnon’s assertion that Paul’s term in 1 Corinthians 6:9 that Gagnon interprets as meaning “men who take other men to bed” (arsenokoitai) comes from combining two words from the LXX of Leviticus 18, 20 (the words for “men” and “laying”).However, he reads way too much into a possible parallel.It could be that Paul got those words from Leviticus, but it is just as likely he knew them already and created a new compound word from them for his own purposes that may or may not have anything to do with Leviticus.We simply cannot know.If the verses in Leviticus are cryptic, Paul’s use of arsenokoitai is even more so since as far as we know Paul’s use of it in 1 Corinthians 6 is the first time it was every used – there are no other contemporary uses in the New Testament or any other Greek literature we know of.As well, Paul simply uses the term in a list with no other explanation of what it might mean.

Gagnon concludes that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are best understood as “banning all homosexual intercourse” (131).However, it seems much better to recognize that those verses are cryptic more than universal and categorical.All we have are short commands that speak only of men with no explanation or supporting stories elsewhere in the Old Testament.The lack of explanation as to what the laws have in mind argue for a more limited application than for a broader application.

Gagnon’s analogies with incest, adultery, and bestiality (131) break down because the Old Testament has much more detail on those three problems than on same-sex intimacy.If all we had in the Old Testament concerning those three was what we are told in Leviticus 18, 20, then we would have much less confidence in their applicability to our present as well.

Gagnon sees the underlying concern behind the Levitical proscriptions being a concern about the profanity of “mixing that which was never intended to be mixed” (135).But we are not really told why this is so bad.It won’t do to say only that they should not be mixed because they were not intended to be.Chances are if we could answer this question, we would find that the underlying reasons are not applicable to our context today.

To use the idea of “maintaining pure categories” (136) as the key concern and then to use not breeding two kinds of animals, not planting two kinds of seeds in one field, and not wearing two kinds of fabric at once as supporting evidence for this concern being central in Leviticus would seem to reinforce the idea that rejecting male/male sex because it violates this need for “pure categories” is context specific and not a timeless absolute.We must ask why this need was central to the text?

The witness of Jesus.

Gagnon begins his discussion of the New Testament with the assertion that “no first-century Jew could have spoken of porneiai (plural) without having in mind the list of forbidden sexual offenses in Leviticus 18 and 20 (incest, adultery, same-sex intercourse, bestiality)” (191).One missing piece of evidence supports that idea that Gagnon’s hostility toward gay and lesbian Christians is clouding his scholarship here – the complete lack of the use of the term porneiai in the New Testament in relation to homosexuality.That is, Gagnon’s assumption is only an assumption, founded much more on his own negative stance toward “homosexual practice” than on direct evidence of first-century Christians making the link.

Gagnon makes this point in service to his effort to undermine the pro-same-sexer arguments that focus on Jesus’ spirit of inclusiveness and care for vulnerable people.For Gagnon, since it is certain that “no first century Jew” (including Jesus, of course) could have spoken of porneiai without very self-consciously having homosexuality in mind, Jesus in Mark 7:21-23 “undoubtedly would have understood homosexual behavior to be included among the list of offenses” (191-2).

Furthermore, when Jesus refers to the prohibition of adultery (Mark 10:19), given his Hellenistic Jew contemporary Philo’s linking of this prohibition with pederasty, incest, and other matters pertaining to sexual intercourse, “it is probable that implicit in Jesus’ embrace of the seventh commandment against adultery was a rejection of all same-sex intercourse” (192).

The Witness of Paul and Deutero-Paul.

Gagnon makes some possibly self-revealing comments when he read into Paul’s cryptic statements said to be speaking to same-sex intercourse in Romans 1 deep “visceral feelings…of disgust toward same-sex intercourse” as “the zenith of detestable behavior” (269).One must ask, are these feelings of “disgust toward same-sex intercourse” Paul’s or Gagnon’s?

We do not have much evidence of Paul’s “deep visceral feelings of disgust” here, especially since it seems clear from the passage of Romans 1–3 as a whole that Paul’s concern is not nearly so much the behavior of which he refers in Romans one as the attitudes of the religious people he challenges in Romans two.

One must ask why same sex intimacy would be so bad.Why would it, per se, be the “zenith of detestable behavior”?Gagnon’s articulated argument seems to rest on the notion of the created complementarity of males and females.However, why would having a quite small part of the population construct intimate relationships that do not reflect that complementarity necessarily be such a threat to the basic norm for the vast majority of the people to such an extent that it would warrant this intense hostility?In reflecting on this question we must remember that Paul himself never explicitly expresses either the intense disgust for same-sex intimacy per se that Gagnon assumes he has nor does Paul directly link his antipathy toward whatever it is he has in mind in Romans one and 1 Corinthians six with the idea of the complementarity of the sexes.

Gagnon asserts, “the evidence is quite clear that Paul considered same-sex intercourse to be sin” (277).However, one needs carefully to unpack this “evidence” and not simply assume that it is obvious (even if Christians have long tended to think it is).The reason this issue is so contested is because this evidence is not clear.Gagnon’s argument is actually weakened by his unwillingness to grant any ambiguity here.

In Romans one, Paul mentions “unnatural sex” (1:26-27) with other forms of adikia (often translated “wickedness” or “unrighteousness” but arguably more accurately translated “injustice” – see N.T. Wright’s commentary on Romans).Is this linking of men being “consumed with passion for one another” (1:27) with adikia an indication that all same-sex intimacy is intrinsically adikia or is it when same-sex intimacy is adikia that it reflects the idolatry/wrath dynamic?What is Paul’s implied critique here, against adikiaor against same-sex intimacy per se?We seem to have much more evidence in Paul’s writing that he is much, much concerned with injustice than with same-sex intimacy per se – reflecting the clear emphasis in Torah, the prophets, and Jesus.

The list of other phenomena that manifest adikia in Romans 1:29-31 seem to include things that are perversions and distortions of aspects of life that are not inherently adikia (e.g., rebelliousness toward parents is a problem of adikia within the context of relationships that are not inherently wrong).

It seems to me that Paul is trying in Romans 1:18-32 to speak to the strongest biases his readers would have had in order to set them up for his further argument that he develops in chapters two and three.He is not necessarily agreeing or disagreeing with these biases, so much as implying that they are dangerous because they blind his readers to their own adikia and total need for God’s mercy.

So we ask, what are most likely to be the kinds of biases Paul is alluding to.Is it anti-homosexuality (in which the basic problem is the same-sexness of the partners) or is it anti-lustful debauchery?It seems crucial to note that Paul only mentions same-sex relating here in the context of people being “consumed with passion” (1:27) and being “filled with every kind of injustice” (1:29).We must remember, too, that Paul was writing to Christians in Rome who would have been aware of the notorious debaucheries associated with emperors such as Caligula and their arch-nemesis Nero.And Paul mentions numerous times in other of his writings that he is concerned about his readers being “consumed with passion” in heterosexual contexts.

The New Testament provides no evidence apart from one very cryptic allusion in 1 Corinthians 6 (discussed below) that homosexuality per se was of interest or concern.

We must also note that Romans one is not meant to be direct guidance for Christian sexual ethics.Paul is not formulating direct guidance for Christian behavior in these verses.His intent is rather to tap into the biases of his readers to make a very different kind of point – in your self-righteousness you are as bad as these idolaters and you run a great risk of separating yourself from the mercy of God found in Jesus.So Paul’s agenda here is not to provide bases for some Christians to be judgmental toward other Christians; it is rather to clear the ground for a fresh and transformative appropriation of God’s healing mercy for all people expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Gagnon gets the point almost exactly wrong when he writes that “the point of the discussion [in Romans 1:18-32] is that God is wholly justified in judging” (280) – with the clear implication that we, too, should be judging.No!The point is that even though God would be justified to do so, God does not condemn (Rom 3:21).God’s non-condemnation in 3:21 is the punch-line for the entire section 1:18–3:20.

Gagnon begins his discussion of 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 with a translation of those individual verses in their immediate context – 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:8-10.He does not consider, crucially in relation to the 1 Corinthians text, the broader paragraph in which this verse is found.By starting with 6:9, Gagnon gives the impression that Paul’s point is about people not “inheriting God’s kingdom” with the implication that he is warning Christians that they will not find salvation if they engage in same-sex intimacy.However, this focus ignores the actual context of 6:9 that is found in the eight previous verses.Paul’s concern here is with Christians taking other Christians to secular courts as a means of settling their differences.

The difference in translating dikia as “injustice” rather than “wickedness” seems especially significant in relation to the context for Paul’s use of two terms often linked with homosexuality here.Paul’s concern is with the justice system of the secular courts and strongly criticizes Corinthian Christians for using it – quite possibly in part because this was a matter of wealthy people in the church using the courts to enforce their exploitation of poorer members (see Richard Hays’ commentary on 1 Corinthians).

So when Paul gives his list of “vices” in 6:9-10, we need to be aware that the context for these vices is his concern with injustice, not sex.Plus, as with Romans one, Paul is describing non-Christians with this list, not giving commands for Christian behavior.This context makes it almost certain that whatever Paul means by some of these cryptic terms, he is thinking of them in terms of overt injustice, not a general statement about all forms of same-sex intimacy (overtly unjust or not).

Gagnon does not mention any of these points about the actual paragraph in which 6:9 is found (6:1-11).Rather, he focuses on the meaning of the individual words arsenokoitai and malakos (306).He does not even address the immediate reason why Paul would give his list in 6:9-11, giving us the idea that Paul provides this list to answer the question of what happens to all same-sexers rather than answering the question of why those exercising authority in the secular courts are not suited to judge between Christians in conflict.

By focusing simply on the sex issue, Gagnon presents the key point here being that the “malakoi are sandwiched between adulterers (people who commit an act of immoral sexual intercourse) and arsenokoitai (people who have something to do with an immoral act of same-sex intercourse)” (308).That is, the key issue is sexual behavior per se, not sexual behavior insofar as it is an expression of injustice.

The term malokoi literally means “soft” and is used both of sexual and non-sexual behavior and characteristics.However, in Gagnon’s discussion of malakoi he relies solely on its being placed between “adulterers” and arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and one passage in Philo where the immediate context is “homosexual behavior” as if these points tell us all we need to know about what Paul had in mind.Gagnon ignores all other non-sexual uses in the New Testament and elsewhere.If we think of the context of 1 Corinthians 6:9 being concern about injustice more than sexual misbehavior, we would have no reason to assume that malakoi referred to same-sexers instead of more generally referring to moral softness in a broad sense (a meaning malokos did have in uses elsewhere in the first century).

The terms arsenokoitai looms large in Gagnon’s discussion.He agrees with many others is speculating that this term is likely a neologism created by Paul.However, he takes a step further in assuming that the meaning of this neologism is obviously simply the sum of the two parts that are joined together (312-3).However, this need not be the case.Sometimes a neologism can take on a new meaning at least somewhat unique (a modern day example would be Gandhi’s joining of “truth,” satya, and “force,” graha, to create a new term satyagraha that had its own special meaning).

The two words joined in arsenokoitai are arseno (“male”) and koite (“lying”).Koite is indeed in the masculine form.However this need not necessarily mean, as Gagnon seems to assume, “men lying with men [in order to have sex].”It is possible that koite is masculine simply in echo of arseno.The word could have the sense, that is, of males having problematic sex with women.

Though Gagnon flatly asserts that since arsenokoitai means “men who take males to bed” it could hardly be referring to heterosexual intercourse (323-4).He could be correct, but the basis for his assertion is mostly speculation.He seems to be assuming that a word’s presumed etymology determines its meaning – and that the meaning of biblical texts is primarily determined by the meaning of individual words.

Of all possible readings of this text (and Romans one), Gagnon’s is one plausible reading, perhaps the most plausible.However, he cannot overcome the paucity of clear evidence illumining the meaning of these texts and the high level of ambiguity surrounding the bits of evidence that we do have.That one offers a plausible reading is not a basis for acting as if one’s reading is an established fact.Gagnon’s absolute certainly and denial of complexity in how he expresses himself counts against his argument.He takes small pieces (e.g., the use of the word arsenokoitai) that could be support for his position and treats them as certainties with global ramifications.

One has the impression that Gagnon has made up his mind that same-sex intimacy is terrible and then wants to use whatever evidence he can find to force his opponents into submission, taking the little bits and welding them into something much bigger and stronger through his use of absolutist rhetoric and numbing amounts of data (the sheer amount of argumentation he muster obscures the tentativeness of his core data).

One must ask what is going on here.Why does Gagnon have to be so absolutist and overpowering?What does he fear that prevents him from treating the biblical data in a more nuanced way and his opponents as people to work together with rather than as people simply to refute and dismiss?

Gagnon time after time generalizes concerning what “most ancient Jews” must have thought (e.g., 350).These generalizations, though, are based on very minimal written documentation (imagine that Gagnon’s book is the only documentation that survives our current discussion on homosexuality 500 years from now; how reliable a reflection would it be on what “most early 21st century Christians” think?).He may be right about “ancient Jews,” but the most he can say with any confidence should be that “the few written pieces of evidence we have indicate…”, not “everyone believed….”

Even if Gagnon is correct in his assertion that Paul, Jesus, and “all biblical writers” utterly condemned all same-sex intimacy (369), does it automatically follow that this unanimity creates an imperative for present-day Christians?For example, we arguably have similar or more clear evidence of a consensus among biblical writers concerning the acceptability of slavery, the view that wives were their husbands’ property, that polygamy is fine, that usury is sinful, that we live in a three-story universe, the Genesis one is literal history, that Jesus would return within a generation of his death, that masturbation is sinful, and that God sometimes orders some people to kill others.Each of these points of “consensus” are denied to be normative for present-day Christians by at least a significant part of the present Christian church.

Thus, even if Gagnon is correct in his reading of the Bible’s view of homosexuality (though, as I have written above, I don’t think he is), does that reading of the Bible appropriately lead to the kind of certainty concerning present-day Christian ethics that he manifests?Might we not have reasons to question the motivations behind his certainty concerning this one issue?


Overall, this comes across to me as an extraordinarily fearful book. Gagnon’s inflexible refusal to allow for ambiguity, complexity, and the possibility that his opponents might be at least partially correct reflects this apparent fearfulness. As does Gagnon’s amazing and constant approach of making absolute and global statements based on what turns out to up, upon examination, very tentative evidence.

Gagnon leaves a number of important issues unaddressed in this very long book. He offers no reflection on the significance of the Bible’s liberative emphases, even if only to explain why these emphases should not be applied to the issue of homosexuality – given how central this theme is for most inclusive writers.Nor does he consider arguments based on the validity of the spiritual experience of gay and lesbian Christians.He does not reflect on whether the biblical materials being so male-oriented would have any significance for how we might apply them.

Perhaps most surprising from someone with Gagnon’s academic credentials, he spends very little time discussing the cultural and historical distance between today and the time of the Bible.He obviously believes that this distance does not negate the normative guidance of the Bible for this one specific ethical issue, but he does not explicitly justify this belief.Many educated Christians today would assume that this distance renders the Bible’s guidance less than obviously normative.Gagnon does not explain why he can so readily overcome the benefit of the doubt against normativeness.

Perhaps most problematic, Gagnon seems to welcome a power struggle, a fight to the death over the soul of the church.It is simply a fact that those on the opposite from him constitute a significant portion of the mainline Protestant community.The only way his take-no-prisoners approach will succeed is by utterly defeating those he disagrees with.One wishes for a much more irenic spirit that conveys the negative convictions concerning “homosexual practice” while also affirming the need for Christians with different views to work together for the wholeness of the church.

Gagnon’s long hermeneutical chapter, instead of an honest and vulnerable treatment of key hermeneutical issues such as the reality that we all approach the Bible with biases, as fallen, finite human beings, instead focuses simply on refusing pro-gay arguments.

Gagnon seems to misunderstand the significance of the argument by many pro-gay writers that the Bible’s paucity of references to “homosexuality” is an important piece of evidence.This point of this argument is not that therefore the Bible must think “homosexuality” is okay.Rather, the point is that the Bible does not tell us what to think about this issue.We must construct our own response based on our own reflection on various factors.And, if one is going to argue against acceptance of covenanted, same-sex partnerships being blessed by the churches, one needs to find grounds in addition to “the Bible tells me so.”

Gagnon mentions anti-gay violence a few times in his book, but pretty much simply in order to dismiss it as carrying any counter-weight to his arguments.However, should not we all be asking where such violence comes from?Should we not all be attentive to the causes of this violence as we reflect on this issue in general?Ultimately, it seems difficult to take with moral seriousness any extensive discussion of “homosexuality” that does not take very seriously this violence.

Peace Theology Book Review Index

6 thoughts on “Robert Gagnon. The Bible and Homosexual Practice

  1. William B. Jones

    Thank you for your efforts here, and especially for your insight on the possibility that criticism of Roman imperial practices are at heart of the first chapter of Romans, which chapter is often used today to condemn same-sex relations. The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV) Third Edition, with Romans annontated by Neil Elliott, has similar notes for this passage.

    I would caution readers of your review, however, that, despite your use of N. T. Wright’s New International Bible Romans Commentary to expand the meaning of “unrighteousnous” to include “injustice” in Romans, Wright does not in that same work support same-sex relations, and in fact goes on to cite Gagnon’s volume as an authority.

    Serendipitously, however, Paul Sampley’s New International Bible Commentary on 1 Corinthians is bound in the same volume with Wright’s Romans, so that readers turning to 1 Corinthinas 6:9 will find there, at least, reference made to the signal work of Victor Paul Furnish on this and other aspects of Paul’s moral reasoning. God (and editors!) works in wondrous ways.

    Also worth noting in the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV) Third Edition is Richard Horsley’s annotations on 1 Corinthinans 6:9-10, which he views as not being concerned with same-sex relations as such, but as more likely expanding the list of economic offenses of 5:10-11 to include sexual offenses (including male prostitution) in anticipation of the yet-more inclusive listing of bodily offenses to come at 6:12-20.

  2. Pingback: What is “Welcoming and NOT Affirming”? « Talking Dog

    1. jstueart

      To be clear to the Talking Dog reference above, I was referring to an article in Baylor University’s magazine which is critical of same-sex marriage and pro “welcoming and NOT affirming” and they use Gagnon to back them up. So I referenced this great review of Gagnon, which I wish Baylor had read…

  3. Scot Miller

    What a fantastic, accurate account of Gagnon’s book. I blogged through Gagnon’s book at, so I know how misleading and overstated Gagnon’s arguments are. I couldn’t speak to the problems of his biblical exegesis (eisegesis?) with as much clarity as you did, because my background is more theological and philosophical. Ultimately, I think Gagon is dishonest with himself, with the text, and with theology.

  4. Pingback: Ramblings of a sinner, Probably the worst, Hopefully getting better (Part 3) | My thoughts on Jesus and His Church

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