Willard M. Swartley. Homosexuality [critical notes]

Willard M. Swartley. Homosexuality: Biblical Interpretation and Moral Discernment. Herald Press, 2003.

[These are notes from September and October 2003 made in preparation for this review.]

I wanted to like this book, because I have liked Willard Swartley so well.  He was a very important teacher for me when I attended Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in the early 1980s, and we have continued to have friendly contact from time to time in the years since.  I am very happy he published this book because we have had so few materials of a scholarly nature to interact with concerning what is surely the most difficult issue the Mennonite Church has ever faced.  I am hopeful Swartley’s book will open the door a bit for the sake of much needed conversation.

However, as will surely be clear in my comments to follow, I am not very happy with what Swartley has actually produced.


Swartley states that we “need to distinguish between exegetical work and the hermeneutical task” (p.11).  I find Swartley’s notion of hermeneutics to be quite impoverished.  He seems to have little to say about what are probably the most significant issues concerning using the Bible for ethics; implicitly assuming, it would appear, that our task is simply determining what the text means and then this meaning takes care of itself.

This Preface and Chapter One would have been good places for Swartley to interact with the excellent essay by Norman Kraus on “the two ‘H’ words” in the book Norman edited, To Continue the Dialogue.  That Swartley is obviously familiar with that book – he cites several of its essays throughout his book – and yet ignores probably the most important essay in the book tells me that he simply does not realize the complexities of these issues.  This failure to work with what I understand to be the key hermeneutical issues is a tremendous problem.

While I appreciate Swartley’s assertion of how important it is that we seek “to speak in love” (p.11), I am troubled with his failure to engage the testimonies of gay and lesbian Mennonites in this book.  Roberta Kreider’s two edited collections of such testimonies, From Wounded Hearts and Together in Love, are resources he should have interacted with.  This refusal to include gay and lesbian Mennonite voices in his discernment process leads me to find his quote from Miroslav Volf at the end of his Preface exhorting us to listen carefully to the voices and perspectives of those with whom we disagree ringing a bit hollow.

Chapter One: My Journey on Homosexuality

Swartley uses the term “homosexuality” without defining it or recognizing just how contested of a term it is.  This creates a problem right away when he states that with regard to “homosexuality one encounters at the level of the ‘plain sense’ of the text only prohibitions, and strong ones at that” (16).  He is already contradicting himself since, as he himself acknowledges later almost in passing, “homosexuality” is a modern term – so the “plain sense” of an ancient text can tell us nothing about “homosexuality.”

Swartley assumes that the basic issue that we have to deal with is “homosexual practice, i.e., same-sex genital intercourse” (p.17).  However, this is not self-evident.  Maybe the basic issue is, instead, the treatment of vulnerable, oppressed people in the community of faith.  Or, maybe, the basic issue is intimate relationships more broadly understood, including friendships and the other elements of committed intimate relationships besides sexual intercourse.  It would have helped if Swartley would have recognized this uncertainty and given some explanation as to why he should be focusing simply on sexual intercourse.

When he writes that “homosexual practice…always appears in prohibitive language” in the Bible, Swartley is making both a meaningless and an inflammatory statement.  It is meaningless in that the Bible cannot possibly be talking about homosexual practice, since the concept of “homosexuality” is modern.  This is important partly because the statement “homosexual practice,” though not clearly defined by Swartley, seems clearly to be meant as an all-encompassing term including any conceivable expression of sexual intimacy between two men or two women.  But the Bible clearly never has this in mind.

What the Bible seems to portray, at the most, in “prohibitive language” includes male-on-male threatened rape (Gen. 19; Judg. 19), male-male cult prostitution (Lev 18; 20), male-male orgies (Rom 1), and exploitative male-male sex (1 Cor 6).  However, the Bible also uses “prohibitive language” of male-female sex in parallel situations (rape, prostitution, orgies, exploitation).  Hence, it seems inappropriate (and inflammatory) to label these prohibitions as having to do with “homosexual practice.”

Chapter Two: The Old Testament and Early Judaism

In general, I found Swartley’s approach to the biblical materials highly disappointing.  He focuses primarily on citing various scholars, playing them off one against another, dismissing the one’s he disagrees with as “unconvincing” without giving one enough data to help the reader draw one’s own conclusion.

Surprisingly to me, given what I remember being taught by Swartley himself in his Biblical Hermeneutics class, he spends little time delving into the texts themselves and virtually no time talking about the broader literary contexts for the passages he does discuss.  So, he simply (very briefly) discusses Genesis 19 without, for one thing, noting the broader context beginning in chapter 18 of the story setting a contrast between Abraham’s receptivity to the angels and Sodom’s hostility.  That is, Swartley does not address what the point of the Sodom story is in its broader literary, treating it instead in narrow isolation.

Swartley makes the point (p.31) that the Bible speaks of “acts,” not “orientation” (or, I would add, not “homosexuality” as an element of a person’s identity).  True enough, but this fact makes it crucial for us then to be quite attentive to the particular “acts” that are referred to – and to why these particular acts are problematic.  And if we are focusing on particular acts, we must question strongly the assumption that we may automatically move from these particular acts to making generalization about all possible acts.  We would never conclude from stories of problematic heterosexual acts such as rape, sex with prostitutes, and involvement in orgies that sexual intimacy in the context of committed, mutually caring, monogamous heterosexual relationships is immoral.

Swartley argues that in Genesis 19 it matters that the “lust” leading to attempted rape was homosexual lust (pp.31-32).  However, how can this be “homosexual” lust when it obviously cannot include women?  It seems to me, in reading Genesis 19 together with Judges 19, that these two stories are not differentiating between whether the people being threatened with rape or actually raped are male or female (that is, whether the “lust” was homosexual or heterosexual), but between whether the victims are guests or not.  The daughters are rejected by the mob in Genesis because they are not guests; the concubine is accepted by the mob in Judges because she was a guest.  That is to say, neither of these stories have any relevance whatsoever to current discussions concerning same-sex intimacy.

In his discussion of Leviticus (pp. 33-36), Swartley does not discuss the broader context of Leviticus nor the hermeneutical issues related to the use of the Old Testament law codes for present day ethics (or for present-day Christian ethics).  He mostly simply cites various scholarly opinions, some of what have very little to do with the actual text we are considering.  This entire chapter on the Old Testament is a wasted opportunity to actually look in some depth at several fascinating texts and try to figure out what the texts are actually saying in their broader contexts.

Chapter Three: Jesus and the Gospels

Swartley states that “Jesus nowhere condoned the sin of the sinners to whom he graciously related.  Rather, he empowered them into a transformed status in society” (p.44).  I read the Gospels as presenting things in a more complicated way.  In some cases (e.g., poor people, sick people, bleeding women), Jesus indicates that what society sees as “sinful” (or “unclean”) is not sinful in God’s eyes.  In other cases (e.g., his followers violating the Sabbath in order to eat), Jesus critiques those who label others’ life-enhancing actions as sinful because they violate the alleged letter of some law.  In yet other cases (e.g., the “woman who was a sinner” who anointed Jesus’ feet with ointment), Jesus offers acceptance with no sense of critique of the “sin.”  Perhaps in some sense in all of these cases Jesus could be seen as “condoning” sin.

In general, Jesus focuses his critique of sinners on those who hurt others (e.g., the Pharisees) and offers unconditional acceptance for vulnerable and oppressed people.  He shows a clear desire to help people to live whole lives, challenging them to make changes that would help them to do so.  But he is not bound by the letter of the law to support people in power using rules to hurt vulnerable people – which is what has all too often in the church in relation to sexual minorities.

Indeed, as Swartley insists, the Gospels portray Jesus as “not soft on judgment” (p.45).  But who generally are seen as the likely recipients of this judgment?  Isn’t it almost always those who try to block entry to the community of faith due to their legalism, not those allegedly guilty of “unrepentant sexual sin”?

Chapter Four: Understanding Paul on Homosexual Practice

Swartley begins his discussion of Romans by zeroing in on 1:24-27, and he asserts that “its function is to describe theologically the nature of humanity’s condition outside salvation in Jesus Christ” (p.50).  In contrast, I would say that the “function” of these verses needs to be understood in terms of their larger context.  In light of that larger context (most immediately, Paul’s argument in Romans 1:16–3:28 ), the function of these verses seems to be to set up Paul’s readers for Romans 2:1ff (as you judge others, you are just as sinful) which is setting the readers up for Romans 3:21 (reconciliation with God for all who trust in Jesus Christ).  That is, Romans 1:24-27 is misread when it is not read as part of Paul’s message of God’s unconditional mercy, a message that, to be understood, must be heard as shattering the kind of self-righteousness that Paul’s readers are prone to when they point fingers at the sins outlined in chapter one.

Swartley asserts that “same-sex desire and practice are regarded as the result of a God-disowning culture” (p.51).  Here his refusal to recognize that there are many types of “same-sex practice” (as there are many types of “opposite-sex practice”) is particularly pernicious.  The broader section running through 1:32 makes it clear that Paul is talking about extreme behavior here.  It is a misuse of this text to draw any general conclusions concerning same-sex affectional orientation from it – just as the story of David with Bathsheba tells us nothing about opposite-sex affectional orientation or the morality of healthy opposite-sex relationships.

Again, in this section, Swartley focuses much more on citing various scholarly opinions as if that is the key to understanding the text, instead of taking us into the text itself and struggling with the genuine issues of how to translate the text’s meaning for our day.

I found Swartley’s comment on p.66 to be a bit sanctimonious and annoying: “I prefer – and it seems to me to be more honest – to not attempt to rework what the texts say and mean with or by tenuous interpretations.”  In my opinion, Swartley could himself be accused of reworking what the Romans text actually says.  He takes what is meant to be a description of non-Christian behavior and twists that into the basis for normative ethical prescriptions for Christians.  As well, he turns the meaning-in-context of this passage on its head, taking what is used by Paul as part of his argument against judgmentalism (2:1ff.) as a basis for his judgmentalism against gay and lesbian Christians.

Swartley ignores several aspects of this text that are important for correctly understanding it.  (1) The whole of 1:16-32 picks up the theme of justice/injustice (unfortunately often translated “righteous,” et al), which in the Bible are relational terms concerned with people living in harmony with or harming others.  If we consider the sexual allusions as in some sense being linked with the vices mentioned in 1:28-31, we see that the sexual behavior problem likely has to do with the behavior being unjust and causing harm.

(2) Swartley never mentions the close parallel of Romans 1 with Wisdom 13–14, a connection that could support the idea that Paul was drawing on some stereotypical attitudes among his readers for rhetorical effect more than developing an original argument.

(3) Swartley never addresses the paucity of material in the Bible concerning women’s same-sex “acts.”  The only possible reference in the whole Bible is here in Romans 1, but this text is irresolvably ambiguous.  The reference in 1:26, “their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural” could be saying the consequences of this “exchange” was “female/female” sex or, on the other hand, it could be that the consequence was simply being overwhelmed with lust in general.  One’s conclusion on this issue probably would follow from what one understood Paul’s general concern here to be, same-sex sex or out-of-control orgiastic sex of various kinds.

Perhaps Swartley’s most problematic textual discussion is his treatment of 1 Corinthians 6:9.  He starts with a single, very ambiguous word (p.67) – as if the meaning of a passage of the Bible is centered on individual words.

The conclusions Swartley draws about this word, arsenokoites, are problematic enough.  As I understand it, we simply do not have enough evidence to ascertain with any certainty that we can conclude that this word (used nowhere else in the New Testament [except for 1 Tim 1:10] and nowhere else in other surviving first-century Greek writings) simply means the sum of the two Greek words from the LXX translation of Lev. 18:22; 20:13, “male” and “laying.”  The similarity between the one word “arsenokoites” and the two Lev words certainly is suggestive, but compound words are not always simply the sum of their two parts.

The bigger problem is Swartley’s failure to be attentive to the context of this verse.  He presents the context as being one centered on the pornoi (the “fornicator”) who is discussed in 1 Cor 5, totally ignoring the context of chapter six immediately preceding 6:9.  Paul’s concern in chapter six, as in Romans 1, is justice/injustice, not “fornication.”  Paul confronts the Corinthians for taking their disputes to secular courts (with the possible subtext that these were wealthier church people using the secular courts to help them exploit poorer church people).  Paul’s punch-line here is that you can’t get true justice from these courts because they are run by unjust people, people characterized by the vices listed in 6:9-10.

Included in this list of vices are terms with uncertain meanings – possibly having sexual aspects.  “Arsenokoites” likely does have some sense of male/male sex as part of its meaning.  Given Paul’s concerns with his vice list here, and given the context for the word’s later use in at least a few early second-century instances, this male/male sex seems linked with injustice, not with all male/male intimacy in all cases.  The second term, malakos, literally means “soft” (see Mt 11:8 ) and could easily here in 1 Cor 6 simply have the sense of “morally lax.”

Amazingly, Swartley seeks to resolve the ambiguity in 1 Cor. 6:9 concerning the possible allusions to male/male sex not by reflecting on the immediate context in the preceding verses, which points toward a justice-oriented concern (implying that it is unjust expressions that Paul has in mind) but by jumping over to Romans one and using that as a basis to conclude that Paul’s main concern in1 Cor 6 was a general condemnation of “homosexual practice” per se (p. 70).

Another problem with Swartley’s approach to 1 Cor 6, echoing his treatment of Rom 1, is that he takes what is a descriptive statement of non-Christian morality serving rhetorical purposes that have nothing to do with sexual ethics (in Rom 1 challenging the judgmentalism of his readers, in 1 Cor 6 challenging the use of non-Christians courts by his readers) and twists that into a prescriptive statement for Christian morality.  Swartley, it seems to me, must resort to doing this because in the New Testament we have a total lack of such prescriptive statements concerning same-sex intimacy.

Chapter Five: Analysis of Contemporary Culture

(1) Swartley combines a blanket condemnation of what he sees to be morally reprehensible about Western culture with a refusal to differentiate among “homosexualities.”  There are surely parallel types of sexual behavior among gays as a group and among straights as a group – in each group ranging from fidelity in life-long partnerships to crass promiscuity.

By refusing to make distinctions here Swartley (1) lumps all who are open to same-sex marriage-like partnerships together with the worst advocates of “free love,” and (2) in this way undercuts any possibility of making common cause with people who would share much of his critique but make a distinction between sexual behavior that is morally inappropriate (for both same and opposite sexual relating) and morally appropriate same-sex relationships.

(2) I wish Swartley would interact with a book such as Didi Herman’s The Anti-Gay Agenda.  I believe that this book helps us see a more central cultural dynamic that drives the Mennonite Church’s (and other denominations’) hostility toward gay members.  Herman helps uncover the political forces from the New Right fueling the anti-gay movement.  Doug Ireland’s article “Republicans Relaunch the Antigay Culture Wars” in The Nation (Oct. 20, 2003)shows this dynamic is still going strong.  I am sorry that Swartley, who has been so exemplary in his peace work over the years, would even implicitly be making common cause with such cynically reactionary forces in our society.

(3) This chapter is full of problematic assertions, assumptions, and innuendos.  I’ll just mention a few.

(i) “Homoerotic attraction…has become part of the dominant cultural agenda of the West” (p.75).  This seems to be a case of greatly exaggerating the problem one is opposing as a means of justifying one’s fearfulness.

(ii) “The sexual revolution of the 60s is a paramount factor in understanding why the homosexual issue has become a cause in Western society” (76).  This statement reflects Swartley’s assumption throughout that “the homosexual issue” is primarily about sexual behavior rather than human rights.  One could just as easily argue that the core dynamic bringing the quest for human rights among gays to the surface were parallel quests for human rights for colonized peoples, African-Americans, women, disabled people, et al.  Given Swartley’s own work for peace, he would likely face a great deal of cognitive dissonance should he admit that the key issue here is human rights, which is possibly why he is so quiet in this book about the horrific persecution vs. gays in our culture and the churches.

(iii) “Western culture is founded on human autonomy” (76).  Of course this is an incredible over-simplification.  But granting at least some of Swartley’s point, it seems totally wrong-headed to imply that the hope for acceptance in the churches and support for intimate partnerships among gay Mennonites is a problem of individualism!  This hope seems to stem from the exact opposite inclination – a recognition of the need for and value of Christian community.

(iv) “It is striking that from Ezekiel 16:49 through the church fathers, wealth and especially greed and injustice, are linked to homosexuality” (78).  Besides the fact that Ezekiel 16:49 most certainly is not a reference to “homosexuality,” this is a blatantly prejudicial and illogical statement.  The famous people I know of who are greedy and unjust are almost uniformly heterosexual.

(v) “The route to be included in God’s salvation and the body of Christ is through repentance and confession of sins, baptism, God’s free justification, and the gift of the Spirit [not on the basis of some ‘human right’ based on some form of justice]” (83).  This points precisely to the issue within the Mennonite Church – we have individuals and churches who are excluded from the fellowship even though they have followed this “route to be included.”

Chapter Six: Hermeneutical Analysis and Reflection

(1) I took a class on “Biblical Hermeneutics” from Swartley in 1981.  Much of the class admittedly focused on exegesis of biblical texts, however I was introduced to Hans-Georg Gadamer (briefly) for the first time and we read and discussed an essay by Rudolf Bultmann, “Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?”  So I credit Swartley with helping me learn of the importance in biblical study of the interpreter’s “horizon.”

So I expected this chapter to include some reflections on our starting points in approaching biblical texts related to sexuality issues.  I was disappointed that it turned out simply to be a series of justifications for particular interpretations, focusing only on internal biblical concerns.  It is amazing how little self-examination Swartley undertakes in this book.  Of all themes that one could write about today, sexuality issues require a lot of self-awareness and honesty about one’s presuppositions.  And insofar as those presuppositions shape one’s interpretations, it becomes even more important to surface them and justify them.  Swartley fails on this score.

For example, what we receive from the Bible will be largely determined by which of the following two questions we begin with as we approach biblical materials.  Are we looking for clear bases to exclude gay Christians from full fellowship in the church (with the assumption that they are in unless it is proven they should be put out)?  Or, are we looking for clear bases to include gay Christians (assuming they are out unless proven otherwise)?  Swartley does not address this issue at all that I could see.

(2) Again, Swartley assumes that the starting point in approach the general issues is sexual behavior, not human rights or Jesus’ love command.  This seems extraordinarily narrow.

(3) Following Gagnon (though thankfully, he is not as relentless in doing this as Gagnon), Swartley writes of “the homosexuality issue” as being in the same cluster of “sexually related sins” as “incest, bestiality, adultery, prostitution, and soliciting prostitutes” (p.103).  I would tend to argue that “the homosexuality issue,” instead, is best seen as being in the same cluster of sins of injustice as oppression of vulnerable people in the community of faith such as widows, orphans, and strangers.  I don’t think Swartley adequately justifies his choice here.

(4) As an Anabaptist, I am not as persuaded as Swartley that the practices of medieval Christendom, Calvin’s Geneva, and New England Puritans of making same-sex illegal and of Paris executing “homosexual offenders” are evidence for how Christian Tradition provides support for present-day anti-gay perspectives within the church (p. 112).  Given that all these people were so wrong about warfare, violence, and capital punishment, why would we assume they were right about sexuality?

Chapter Seven: The Church’s Belief and Response

Swartley writes, “institutional and congregation leaders must be alert to the way homosexuality tends to stop everything else and becomes an all or nothing bargain” (p.119).  I think it would be much more accurate (and honest) to say that opposition to “homosexuality” tends to stop everything else.

I’ll just give one example from my experience.  A couple of years ago, Broad Street Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, existed pretty much out of sight and out of mind, a tiny congregation on the margins of the Virginia Conference’s Harrisonburg District.  At that point, the congregation had no gay members or attendees.  One of the members had a lesbian friend looking for a location for her commitment ceremony, and offered the church building for that use.  Somehow word got out to a Conference pastor who contacted the District leaders demanding that Broad Street be stopped from allowing their building to be used in this way.  Broad Street resisted the demand, and in the course of a conversation with District leaders admitted that the congregation would be open to the participation of gays in their church life.  The first challenge to Broad Street’s decision to allow the ceremony came in December 2001.  In February 2003, the congregation was formally kicked out of Virginia Conference.

One of the main arguments I heard expressed for acting against Broad Street was that many people in the Conference were threatening to leave if such action didn’t happen.  District leaders even openly stated that they saw themselves faced with a no-brainer – either Broad Street or the many, many on the other side who were making the threats.  (A huge irony is that the original pastor who raised the complaint did not even wait around for the very abbreviated process leading to Broad Street’s expulsion – he led his congregation out of the conference only a few months after raising his initial complaint.)

To me this story illustrates that the initiative in “stopping things” in the churches due to controversy almost always comes from the anti-gay people.  Broad Street, like other Mennonite congregations in Germantown, Pa., Ames, Iowa, and Calgary, Alberta, simply wanted to exist within its Conference and be allowed to follow its own discernment processes.  The conflict arose not because of “homosexuality” but because of those activists opposing the presence of a congregation in their Conference that had a different perspective.

Chapter Eight: A Model for Congregational Discernment

Swartley’s rejection of allowing experience to play a central role in the churches’ discernment processes (pp.126-7) strikes me as self-defeating theologically and practically.  From the get go, we in the church are involved in open-ended conversations in which we draw on our experiences as the basic elements of our “horizon.”  The only way we can hope truly to understand (each other, scripture, tradition, et al) is to accept that we each bring a unique “horizon” to the conversation, a “horizon” shaped by our own unique experiences.

I want to insist that our only hope to live together in community is to respect these various experience-shaped “horizons,” to seek to learn from our differences, and to work together to find common ground that we can build our life together on.

Swartley is, of course, correct to point out the messiness of allowing experience in as a central element of our discernment processes.  However, this is precisely where our peace theology should help us understand that the only way to find genuine peace is to learn to respect each other and genuinely listen to each other (see my article in the July 2003 Mennonite Quarterly Review, “Pacifism and Knowing: ‘Truth’ in the Theological Ethics of John Howard Yoder,” where I use the churches’ discussions on sexuality issues as an example of how a genuinely pacifist epistemology can help us proceed).

It could be that the Mennonite churches are basically facing a crossroads right now.  Either we commit ourselves to an ecclesiology that genuinely seeks open discernment where all members listen respectfully to one another in expectation that the Spirit of God guides the churches through such discernment or we commit ourselves to holding the line on the “traditional” view of “homosexuality.”  It seems increasingly clear to me that it is one or the other.

So, contrary to how Swartley presents the issues, this is not about sex.  It is about how the churches understand their basic identity and way of being.  What does it mean to be followers of Jesus today?  One of the best indications of how the Mennonite Church is answering this question is how the Church processes differences within the fellowship.  What I have seen in my 30 years among the Mennonites does not leave me very encouraged.


Though I am critical of Swartley’s book, and I am especially disappointed that as a biblical scholar he does not do more engaging directly with the texts in their literary contexts, I still am glad that he has published this book.

He seeks to be irenic, and that is to be appreciated.  Though he is quite dependent upon the work of Robert Gagnon (to Swartley’s detriment, in my opinion–see this critique of Gagnon) he does not share Gagnon’s scarcely disguised disgust with gay people – and that is so be appreciated.

Most of all, Swartley’s book took courage for him to publish, knowing he would be open to critical responses (and worse).  I would like to believe that it wasn’t simply a matter of, wow, we have to provide our people with ammunition for refuting pro-gay arguments.  I would like to believe that Swartley genuinely wants to foster broader and deeper conversations among Mennonite on these issues.

Peace Theology Book Review Index

2 thoughts on “Willard M. Swartley. Homosexuality [critical notes]

  1. anolddisciple

    Ted, I know this comes years after the fact, but because of discussions in my local congregation, I’m just now reading Willard’s book. I was noting what i thought were serious inadequacies, circular arguments, and choices apparently made on the basis of predisposition rather than careful analysis. Rather than take the time to attempt to spell out my issues, I googled for a critical review and was directed to your two reviews. You articulate carefully and in detail my concerns. Thanks for your work.

    1. Ted Grimsrud Post author

      John, in case you are noticing my response—I appreciate your affirmation. It means a lot coming from you. Sometimes when I am feeling a bit discouraged, I remember our conversations and find some sustenance in them. I love reading your Facebook conversations and admire your insights, irenic spirit, and perseverance.


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