Willard M. Swartley. Homosexuality

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

[Review written in 2003; a shorter version was published in Dreamseeker Magazine (Spring, 2004)]

I have a dear friend, a lifelong Mennonite, grandparent of teen-agers.  My friend despairs for the future of the Mennonite Church USA.  “We have to learn to talk with each other,” he says.  He fears that various segments of the church are like a group of boats on a river during a heavy fog who do not realize how far they are drifting apart.

Since 1985, when the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church jointly published a study book, Human Sexuality in the Christian Life, official church publishers and agencies have provided little material in service of the kind of conversation my friend hopes for – hence his fear that should we ever begin such a conversation under MC USA auspices, we will find our various “boats” far apart indeed.

I hope my friend is pleased that Herald Press has published Homosexuality: Biblical Interpretation and Moral Discernment.  The author, Willard M. Swartley, Professor of New Testament at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, has been widely cited as Mennonites’ foremost New Testament scholar.

A blurb on the book’s back cover from Conrad Grebel University College’s president Henry Paetkau, lauds the book as a resource that “can facilitate informed discussion and debate.”  In his preface, Swartley states he is offering the book as “a resource for ongoing discernment.”

I hope my friend receives this book as a an invitation from a church leader and the church’s publishing house for needed conversation – and a substantial contribution to such conversation.

Swartley implies in the preface that he is offering such an invitation.  He writes that we in the Mennonite Church today need “discernment on an understanding of biblical authority, assessment of the exegesis and hermeneutics on this issue, and a moral assessment of our western culture.  I too sit at the table of discernment to listen to how others perceive the crucial issues in this debate.  On these matters we need to respectfully engage each other in ongoing discussion” (p.11).

Swartley provides by far the most extensive published discussion of biblical, theological, and cultural issues related to the “homosexuality issue” that any Mennonite scholar has yet produced.  And, most helpfully for the sake of Mennonite conversations, he continually references the Mennonite context and interacts with many of the (briefer) extant Mennonite writings on the issues by others.


Swartley’s Argument

Swartley certainly provides material for discussion.  In his introductory chapter he provides a clear sense of his perspective.  He asserts that unlike issues he has written on previously (such as war, male/female relationships, and slavery), with homosexuality there is clarity and uniformity in the biblical witness that do not allow for movement away from a more “status quo” view towards a more “liberative” view.

In Swartley’s view, the Bible gives direct support for the claim that in relation to slavery, war, and gender relations, “God’s way is different, liberating and loving, replacing dominion and self-defensiveness with mutuality and trust.”  With homosexuality, the biblical focus is different.  “Homosexual practice is not related to grace-energized behavior in a single text” (p.18).  For Swartley, the Bible gives us grounds to challenge long-held Christian practices concerning slavery, war, and sexism; the Bible does not give us such grounds in relation to homosexuality.

After giving his rationale for affirming a high view of biblical authority and consequently seeing biblical reflection as central for how the church approaches these issues, Swartley adds that cultural analysis is also a crucial component.  He believes “the sexual revolution of the 1960s” is the crucial event that has created pressures on the church to weaken its longterm rejection of the legitimacy of same-sex intimate relationships.

Swartley notes there are many theories regarding the origin of same-sex attraction.  “The sexual revolution of the 1960s is most significant because it redefined sexual mores for the society.  As a result, the west has developed a sexualized culture, which despite the glamorous face the culture attaches to sex is often productive of sexual abuse in the home or school.  Such abuse is a key factor in influencing later sexual development and capacity for expression.  If it is true that our societal culture is a determinative factor, we must then, perhaps, regard homosexual persons (gays and lesbians) as, in part at least, products of societal cultural forces they did not choose.  This does not mean resignation to these forces, but an acknowledgment that we are dealing not with individual persons, but also with cultural systems that work against God’s pattern for human life” (pp. 23-24).

What follows are three chapters focused on biblical materials.  Swartley provides a thorough introduction to many of the scholarly currents swirling around interpretations of the Bible’s teaching on sexuality – firmly siding with those who see a clear and uncompromising stance in the Bible “against same-sex genital practices.”

Chapter two draws on materials mostly from the Old Testament.  The three main points Swartley draws from the Old Testament are: (1) Genesis one portrays God’s intention with creation being that sexuality is a good gift, with great power and subject to misuse (pp.27-28).  The only appropriate context for sexual intercourse is male/female marriage.

(2) The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is rightly understood as focusing on threatened rape as an expression of inhospitality, not on “loving homosexual relations.”  Nonetheless, it is significant that in Genesis 19 and Judges 19 “it is precisely (homo)sexual lust that precludes hospitality” (pp.31-32).

(3) Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 regard same-sex relations as an abomination in the same category as idolatry and child-sacrifice (p.33).  “The fact that same-sex male relations and Molech worship, which involved sacrificing offspring, are linked may be ‘telling’ of the seriousness of the same-sex offense” (p.35).

In chapter three, while acknowledging that Jesus did not overtly speak of homosexuality, Swartley draws eight points from Jesus’ teaching that are relevant for our ethical discernment.  He believes that Jesus combines a commitment to holiness (e.g., a condemnation of porneia [“fornication,” defined by Swartley as “as sexual genital relations outside heterosexual marriage,” p.40]) with mercy (e.g., be loving toward even those you must critique for transgressing holiness requirements, p.47).

Chapter four focuses on Paul, especially the key texts Romans 1:24-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9.  Swartley proposes that the Romans passage is particularly important because it links same-sex practices with idolatry – a rejection of the God-ordered normativity of heterosexuality.  He understands 1 Corinthians 6:9 in the context of Paul’s concern with sexual libertinism that is reflected in 1 Corinthians 5 and the critique porneia (“fornication”).  Swartley concludes, “what was wrong, first and foremost, for Paul in the case of same-sex intercourse was the fact that the participants were members of the same sex rather than the opposite sex” (p.70).

Swartley then sketches an “analysis of contemporary western culture,” attempting to situate the recent emergence of movements favoring the acceptance of same-sex intimacy in the context of modern cultural dynamics, with a large weight of responsibility resting on the legacy of Enlightenment philosophy.

At one point he lists what he understands to be factors (many cultural) that contribute to people desiring same-sex intimacy: use of mind-altering drugs; influence of theater, film, and pornography; being in situations (such as prison) where one is forced into homosexual practice; psychological development issues between parent and child; disappointment over a failed heterosexual relationship; result of sexual abuse during childhood; compensation for loneliness and need for intimacy; and lesbian desire empowered by the fight against straight culture and patriarchy, coupled with neo-pagan religion and ritual (p. 84).

In chapter six Swartley develops a strategy for applying the conclusions he drew from the Bible in chapters two through four to our contemporary context.  He follows this in chapter seven with reflections on “The Church’s Belief and Response” and in chapter eight with “A Model for Congregational Discernment.”

Swartley seeks to combine compassion with clarity about sexual boundaries and Christians’ call to holy living.  He admits this is a big challenge, but calls the churches to seek to meet the challenge by putting resources and energy into spiritual discernment and redemptive discipline.

Willard Swartley deserves admiration for his courage in sending forth this book.  In laying out his thinking, he makes himself vulnerable to challenges from various points of view; but this is what is needed for the Mennonite Church to make genuine progress in responding to these issues.  These are difficult issues, and many questions need serious reflection.


In the spirit of Swartley’s assertion that “on these matters we need to respectfully engage each other in on-going discussion,” I would like to mention a few of the questions that seem important to me after reading this book.

(1) Is it clear what is meant by the term, “homosexuality”?  Swartley notes that the term itself was not coined until the 19th century (p.31), but does not seem to be concerned with carefully defining what he means by “homosexuality” when he uses it in relation to the Bible.

However, it is surely not self-evident that a modern concept can simply be used to describe ancient phenomena with much accuracy.  It would have been helpful had Swartley at least addressed this issue.

Throughout the book, Swartley speaks of “homosexual acts” and “homosexual practices.”  He does not clearly explain his basis for moving from the few specific examples of such “acts” given in the Bible to making blanket generalizations about “homosexuality” per se.  Especially since all or almost all of these “acts” alluded to are male behavior, how to we move these particular cases to universal conclusions?

We would never draw from stories of problematic “heterosexual acts” or “heterosexual practices” (such as rape, incest, adultery, and sex with prostitutes) that committed, mutually caring, monogamous heterosexual relationships are immoral.  Swartley would have strengthened his argument a great deal had he explained why he would move from particular cases to general condemnation in the case of “homosexuality” and not in the case of “heterosexuality.”

(2) How do we best understand the several biblical texts commonly understood to speak to the issue of homosexuality in their broader literary context.  Disappointingly, though Swartley devotes three full chapters (49 pages) to biblical matters, he does not delve deeply into exposition of the texts themselves but instead mostly settles for citing numerous scholarly opinions.  He does not help very much in empowering readers themselves to make their own informed decisions concerning the texts’ meanings.

Swartley does not help us understand the broader purposes these various texts were meant to service in their literary contexts.  Why are these particular stories told where they are told?  What’s their role in the broader literary units in which they appear?

One example is the inhospitality of Sodom toward the angelic visitors in Genesis 18 contrasting with Abraham’s hospitality toward the visitors in chapter 17 (implying that the issue in the judgment in chapter 18 is hospitality not sexuality). 

A second example is the role of Romans 1:18-32 as setting up Paul’s “self-righteous” readers to be critiqued for their judgmentalism in Romans two (implying that the portrayal of idolatrous sensuality in chapter one was first of all a rhetorical device to serve Paul’s critique of self-righteousness – similar to what Amos did with his critique of “the nations” prior to his actual punch-line critique of Israel [Amos 2]).

Probably the most troubling example is Swartley’s treatment of 1 Corinthians 6:10 as if its context is directly linked with Paul’s discussion of sexual morality in 1 Corinthians five (page 68).  Swartley ignores the immediate context in 1 Corinthians six of Paul’s critique of (probably rich) church people taking other (probably poor) church people to secular courts.  The list of vices in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, then, is used to illustrate why those running secular courts are not to be trusted – this is the kind of unjust people they are – for the sake of justice, you in the church need to work things our among yourselves.

When we understand the context of the vice lists in 1 Corinthian six to be concern with justice, not sexuality, our understanding of the two ambiguous, undefined terms in that list often translated “homosexuals” and similar terms (malakoi and arsenkotai) might need to be revised.  Swartley does not even acknowledge this as an issue.

(3) Is it appropriate to make generalizations about homosexuality per se (that is, about all same-sex intimate relationships) based on proscriptions and problems that only apply to some?  More specifically, because something is considered to be wrong regarding intimacy between two men, does that justify a conclusion about all same-sex intimate relationships (including women).

Swartley argues that the issue of “orientation” is relatively unimportant; what matters in the Bible is behavior.  He implies that biblically (and for contemporary Christians), the issue is what people do, period.

However, this argument requires generalizing for all same-sex intimacy based on references that focus only on males.  That is, Genesis 19 and Judges 19 tell of men wanting to rape other men; Leviticus 18 and 20 forbid men laying with men; Romans one describes men being consumed with lust for other men; and the key word in 1 Corinthians six and 1 Timothy one is a compound of the words “men” and “laying with.” 

Romans one does include a reference to women involved in “unnatural intercourse” (1:26).  However, the text is irresolvably ambiguous concerning this “intercourse.”  I could be implying that what is “unnatural” is that it was out-of-control lust resulting in orgiastic sex, perhaps indiscriminately with men and women.  Or it could be implying that what is “unnatural” is that it was women having sex with other women.  It does not appear that we can achieve certainty either way.

So this one ambiguous reference is scarcely enough on which to base any firm conclusions about biblical teaching concerning female/female sexual intimacy.  All the other biblical texts alluding to same-sex activity clearly are referring to males (Gen. 19; Jud. 19; Lev. 18; 20; 1 Cor 6; 1 Tim. 1).

A major question then becomes why these few texts portray male-male sex as problematic.  Do they do so for reasons that would also encompass female-female intimacy or are they for male-specific reasons?  If the latter, then the applicability of these texts to the “homosexuality issue” per se is lessened.

This question also arises in relation to Swartley’s appendix on the AIDS crisis.  His writing is a bit ambiguous here, but given his inclusion of this essay in this book, it seems clear he is linking AIDS with homosexuality, trying to buttress his overall argument against same-sex intimacy per se with this example of problems with such intimacy.

However, it seems obvious that the segment of sexually-active society least vulnerable to AIDS would be women in same-sex relationships.  So, AIDS would at most seem to be an issue of concern for reflecting morally on certain male-male behavior, but not relevant at all for the issue of homosexuality per se.

(4) The next question follows: What is the sin that is inherent to homosexuality?  Most of the evidence Swartley gives for the homosexuality being problematic does not necessarily apply to same-sex intimate relationships per se (that is, not to all such relationships).

Swartley argues that the churches must resist cultural dynamics that foster unhealthy sexual behavior – promiscuity, obsessive self-gratification, sexually-transmitted diseases, infidelity, coercion, etc.  However, as he acknowledges, these problems are present among heterosexual people, too.  And, many believe, there is no inherent reason why same-sex intimate relationships cannot be committed, monogamous, faith-enhancing, mutually respectful.

So, if same-sex relationships do not inherently manifest the problems Swartley is citing, wherein is the sin in relation to all conceivable same-sex intimate relationships?  If the Bible is focused on male-male behavior, what is the moral violation that occurs in relationships between women?  It would seem that if one is to make the kinds of generalizations Swartley makes concerning same-sex intimate relationships as an entire class, one should be using evidence that applies to all possible members of that class.

(5) What might we learn from the lives of Christians who are in same-sex intimate relationships?  Swartley gives makes strong assertions concerning problematic dynamics among gay people, but he does not give any evidence of considering counter testimonies.

His bibliography does not include two important books edited by Roberta Showalter Kreider, From Wounded Hearts: Faith Stories of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People and Those Who Love Them and Together in Love: Faith Stories of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Couples.  These books gather many testimonies from Mennonites.

Had Swartley taken Kreider’s book into account, he would have realized that according to many Mennonites in same-sex intimate relationships the issue of sexual gratification is scarcely at the center of what draws them to their committed relationships.  They present their motivations in ways quite similar how what most Mennonites in opposite-sex intimate relationships likely would – finding in their shared lives with intimate partners a sense of wholeness and completeness that provides empowerment and support for living faithfully as children of God in our challenging world.

I believe these are significant questions and I wish Swartley had spoken to them more adequately.  The fact that he says so much in this book and yet still leaves so many issues unaddressed underscores how much work Mennonites have ahead of ourselves as we week to find some wholeness in relation to sexuality issues.

Nonetheless, Willard Swartley, in Homosexuality: Biblical Interpretation and Moral Discernment, has made an invaluable contribution.  He has put this topic on the table with a seriousness, thoroughness, and clarity that has not heretofore been provided by Mennonite scholars and publishers.  We now have some much more detailed touch points for the on-going conversations we so badly need.  So, let’s get to work to see if we might pull our boats back closer together before it’s too late.


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