Category Archives: Homosexuality

The Bible and same-sex marriage

Ted Grimsrud

Lecture presented at Oak Grove Mennonite Church (Smithville, Ohio)—January 18, 2015

As I understand it, I have been invited to be with you today in order to speak from a biblically grounded perspective. I was asked to share my perspective, to explain why I support Christian churches taking what I call an “inclusive” (i.e., gay Christians should be accepted as full participants in the churches with the acceptance of their intimate relationships being understood in the same was as acceptance of heterosexual intimate relationships) rather than “restrictive” (limits should be placed on the participation of gay Chrstians due to their sexual identity) approach to Christians who are in—or who are open to being in—committed intimate relationships with partners of the same sex (for simplicity’s sake, I will use the term “gay”). In a nutshell: I support non-discrimination—gay Christians and straight Christians should seek to adhere to the same set of expectations concerning intimate relationships.

Moral analogies

Let’s imagine several “moral analogies” for how we might think of gay marriage.

(1) The least accepting view is that gay marriage is a choice to sin by people who could easily choose otherwise. The analogy could be that gay marriage is like adultery. It’s simply wrong and the person sinning is fully culpable even for wanting to sin.

(2) A more moderate view is that gay marriage is a wrong choice for one who has an unchosen affectional orientation toward people of one’s same sex. The analogy could be that same-sex marriage is like alcoholism. We tend to see the proclivity toward alcoholism to be something that is innate for some people and as such not morally wrong. But the choice to act on that proclivity is sinful. Likewise, one who is attracted to people of the same sex should not act on that and become sexually involved.

(3) A more accepting view yet is that the same-sex attraction is problematic, not the ideal, but not inherently morally wrong. Given that it is deep-seated and, for some, unchangeable, church and society should accept the validity of gay marriage because marriage is a good thing that should not be withheld from people who are not suited for “normal” opposite-sex partnerships. The analogy could be that same-sex affectional orientation is like a birth defect (such as being born without sight). The task is to work at living as full a life as possible in face of the defect. So, if not an ideal state, being “afflicted” with same-sex affectional orientation need not disqualify one from finding a marriage partner and living a pretty normal life.

(4) The most accepting view sees same-sex attraction as completely morally neutral, just as is opposite-sex attraction. The analogy could be that same-sex affectional orientation and gay marriage are like being left-handed. Most people are strictly right-handed, a few are strictly left-handed, and some others are a mixture. Handedness is simply part of who we are. We don’t understand it very well, but we have learned that it is unchangeable for people at the farthest ends of the “handedness” spectrum. Continue reading

Homosexuality, hiring practices, and the Mennonite confession of faith

Mennonites have become pretty good at scaring people away with our unwelcoming spirit. I have just learned of another Mennonite institution that is justifying what I call a “restrictive” approach to homosexuality by referring to the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. In this case, it’s a conference beginning a “review” process with a pastor who has expressed a willingness to officiate at a same-sex wedding.

I am troubled by the narrowness of spirit that seems to lie behind the initiating of such a process. As well, I am troubled by how such an approach is justified by a demonstrably wrong use of the 1995 Confession of Faith. I have spoken and written about this “wrong use” several times now. I offer here a short statement I gave while on a panel of faculty and administrators at Eastern Mennonite University on April 11, 2013, that addressed EMU’s hiring practices in relation to gay and lesbian professors. Continue reading

Is the Mennonite Confession of Faith Anti-Gay?

Ted Grimsrud—June 20, 2010

The debate over homosexuality among Mennonites continues apace. Just this morning I learned of a recent lengthy and intense meeting held among leaders in Mennonite congregations in a regional district. It sounds like the meeting was, as these meetings have been for decades now, emotionally stressful and mostly non-conclusive. And, has been the case now since 1995, partisans for the churches taking a restrictive rather than inclusive stance toward sexual minorities insisted that they were simply defending the clear teaching of the Mennonite Confession of Faith (CofF).

These partisans do have formal warrant for their argument in that the Membership Guidelines that were formulated to set terms for the merger of the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church in 2001 do take a restrictive stand—and cite the CofF as offering crucial support for this stance. However, a careful reading of the CofF itself does not support such use. [The following paragraphs are taken from a longer article: “Mennonite Church USA’s ‘Teaching Position’ on Homosexuality: A Critique.”]

The first source that is cited in the Membership Guidelines in the statement asserting a restrictive stance for the new denomination is the 1995 CofF. That the CofF would be cited as the basis for the “teaching position” on homosexuality is interesting. This citation, without explanation, gives the impression that the CofF provides clear and direct teaching concerning homosexuality. However, the actual CofF does not in fact even mention homosexuality. So, here we have an example of theology by citation more than by exposition. It’s enough to cite the official doctrinal statement of MC USA with a proof text to establish a “teaching position” that then will be used by leaders to justify closing down discussion. Continue reading

A case study in the “gay issue” and Mennonite “church discipline”

Even though Mennonite communities in North America have been engaged in debates and controversies over the “gay issue” for decades, little careful historical writing has yet been done on these controversies. I am sure there are writings I am not aware of, but most of what has been published so far has been limited to first person accounts (as collected in Roberta Krieder’s excellent books), more generalized sociological and/or rhetorical studies (such as works by Michael King and Gerald Mast), and a few short historical overviews (such as Lin Garber’s article in the book edited by Norman Kraus, To Continue the Dialogue).

We now have a very specific but quite illuminating, carefully researched and clearly written study of one case of conference discipline of a dissident pastor. Kelly Miller, a 2011 graduate in history from Goshen College, has written her senior thesis on Kathleen Temple, the former pastor of Shalom Mennonite Congregation in Harrisonburg, Virginia. [Full disclosure: Kathleen is my wife; I figure tangentially in the story Kelly tells.]

Miller’s paper is called, “Behind Mennonite Same-Sex Sexuality Debates: Kathleen Temple and Virginia Mennonite Conference, 1998-2002.” It may be read here.

Certainly, Miller’s lengthy paper (it’s 53-pages printed out) is of great interest for those of us directly involved in the events that ended with Temple’s loss of ministerial credentials. However, it’s importance also lies in providing a careful look at how “church discipline” worked in this one case and the problematic consequences of the actions taken by Virginia Conference. Miller quite helpfully provides us with concrete, on-the-ground, information that can contribute to growth in our understanding of how these controversies have worked out in actual history with actual people.

A critique of the Mennonite Church USA’s “teaching position” on homosexuality

North American Mennonites are typical of Christian denominations in struggling with whether and how to be welcoming of gay and lesbian Christians in their midst. This struggle promises to be on the table at the Mennonite Church USA’s General Assembly in Pittsburgh this summer.

The citing of MC USA’s stated “teaching position” on this issue, especially by denominational leaders, both reflects the history of this struggle over the past several decades and plays an important role in present dynamics. But what exactly is this “teaching position”? Where did it come from and what is it based on?

I have an article, “The Logic of the Mennonite Church USA ‘Teaching Position’ on Homosexuality,” that was be published Spring 2011 in Brethren Life and Thought (volume 55.1-2, dated Winter/Spring 2010) and attempts to respond to these questions about the “teaching position.”

I argue that this “official stance” is based on shaky premises (for example, one key element is an assertion that the Mennonite Confession of Faith takes a restrictive position regarding homosexuality, an assertion I show to be unfounded). This “teaching position” is all too often used to stifle conversation on these issues. I conclude that the only way through for MC USA as a denomination and for MC USA congregations and other organizations is to welcome open discussion and decentralized, congregation-centered discernment.

Along the way, I also discuss the significance of how many restrictive advocates use the term “homosexual practice” (singular) rather than “homosexual practices” (plural). This usage then has the effect of actually reducing the important of the actual content of biblical materials that relate to the broader issues related to homosexuality in the community of faith. I also reflect on the role that “natural law” seems to play in this discussion, even for self-affirming biblicists.

Mennonites and Homosexuality

Welcoming But Not Affirming: The Logic of MC USA’s “Teaching Position” on Homosexuality

Ted Grimsrud—July 2010

[Author’s note: This essay was drafted shortly after I taught my Introduction to Theology class, which included a unit on homosexuality. I wanted to get some of my thoughts onto paper while they were fresh. I have not yet been able to develop the argument in this essay as thoroughly as I hope to. However, due to other commitments it may be some time before I can return to fleshing out my thoughts. Especially, the paper’s final section needs significant expansion. In the meantime, I am posting the essay here on Peace Theology in hopes that some may find it helpful—and that I may receive constructive criticism that will help me when I return to the essay. For a pdf version of this paper go here: Mennonites and Homosexuality. A slightly revised version of this article was published as “The Logic of the Mennonite Church USA Teaching Position on Homosexuality” in Brethren Life and Thought 55.1-2 (Winter 2010), 10-23.]


Numerous times over the past twenty-five years I have entered into conversations concerning issues related to our churches’ response to the presence in our midst of gay[1] Christians.  These conversations remain as challenging and seemingly unresolvable as ever.  But they also remain as interesting as ever.  And I keep learning as I engage in such conversations—about my own views and deep-seated values, about the dynamics of the conversation, and about the perspectives of my conversation partners (especially those with whom I disagree).

Certainly the conversations are complex and viewpoints are almost infinitely varied.  We all bring a mixture of motivations, ethical resources, political agendas, social locations, levels of education, personal experiences, and so much more.  However, as a trained ethicist, my tendencies run toward trying to provide some kind of conceptual order in analyzing these conversations.  This leads me to suggest various ordering categories—not (heaven forbid!) as stable slots into which to fit various actors (so I will avoid the word “type” and instead use terms such as “tendency,” “way of arguing,” and “inclination”)—as aids for growing in understanding (the proverbial “heuristic devices” as artificial categories that have educational value but must be held lightly).

The first set of categories I will use is meant to give us reasonably neutral terms for the two sides in the debate, focusing on issues centered in the churches.  These terms are “inclusive” and “restrictive.”  These two terms focus on the specific question of whether a church participant’s “gayness” per se should play a role in the level of involvement this participant will be allowed.

The term “inclusive” conveys an approach that would not limit the involvement due to whether the people are gay or not (this view could easily hold that the church should restrict the involvement of all people who are involved in sinful relationships, heterosexual or homosexual—the point being, though, that heterosexual couples and homosexual couples are held to the same standards).

The term “restrictive” conveys an approach that would limit the involvement of people who are presently in intimate same-sex relationships (or perhaps also those who are open to entering into such relationships).  The degree of restrictiveness might vary greatly among different churches, but in all cases the basis for restriction is the gayness of the participants.

In the conversations among Christians about the place of gay Christians in the churches, we may discern several different kinds of reasoning occurring, drawing in different ways on different ethical sources.  A simply way of beginning to separate out a few of these types of reasoning is to set the types of reasoning in a quadrant.  One spectrum (running left to right) would be the restrictive/inclusive spectrum.  The other spectrum (running up and down) would be a biblical authority spectrum (that is, a spectrum tracking various views on the centrality of the Bible in the ethical rationales that are put forth).


(R-1) Restrictive; high authority        (I-1) Inclusive; high authority

(R-2) Restrictive; low authority         (I-2) Inclusive; low authority


R-1: Focus on direct texts.

R-2: Focus on what seems “natural”—physical “fit”, Tradition, feelings of revulsion.

I-1: Start with Bible’s big message, then analyze direct texts.

I-2: Focus on experiences of gay Christian—self-awareness of God’s blessing


This simple chart shows us that some on the inclusive side operate with a high view of biblical authority and that some on the restrictive side draw heavily on natural theology more than direct biblical texts.  Surely most who are involved in this conversation draw in various ways on both biblical texts and human experience.  However, it is appropriate to challenge people to be self-aware of what type of reasoning they are tending to use.

For example, often people on both side accept the truism that there is a direct correlation between one’s view of biblical authority and one’s tendency toward an inclusive or a restrictive view.  However, this simply is not the case.  Some who focus on general biblical themes such as hospitality and argue that the “direct texts” do not speak directly about all types of same-sex sexual intimacy (such as I do) still should be seen as ranking pretty high the “biblical authority” spectrum.  On the other hand, many on the restrictive side draw heavily on natural law when they speak about how “unnatural” same-sex sexual intimacy seems or even when they speak about the centrality of the exclusive norm of male/female marriage.[2]

The “teaching position” of the Mennonite Church USA

In many public discussions of the “homosexuality issue” in Mennonite contexts, participants often refer to the “teaching position” of the Mennonite Church.  An obvious example is the policy of the MC USA’s magazine, The Mennonite, not to publish letters to the editor that debate the “church’s teaching position.”  The implication of such usage, it would seem, is that the MC USA does have a clear and settled “official position” on homosexuality.  With this settled “position,” the church is also committed to on-going discernment and application, but from the point of view of having a decided position.  My concern in this paper is to look more closely at this “teaching position.”

The significance of having a settled stance may be seen in this recent comment from one MC USA leader, John Roth, editor of the Mennonite Quarterly Review: “I think if you asked Anabaptist-Mennonites about it right now, a significant majority would likely say [this] about homosexual marriage: This is no longer a topic we are ready to keep high on our congregational or denominational agenda.  Our teaching position is clear: Congregations or pastors who choose to take formal, public stances in opposition are, in effect, choosing to dissociate themselves from the understanding of the larger community.”[3]

This term “teaching position” came into prominence with the publication of the “Membership Guidelines for the Formation of the Mennonite Church USA” in 2001.  Section III of the Membership Guidelines focused on “issues related to homosexuality and membership,” and articulated several “teaching positions”—affirming the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (1995) and especially its statement, “We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life” (Article 19); affirming the Saskatoon (1986) and Purdue Statements (1987) that describe “homosexual, extramarital, and premarital sexual activity as sin;” and affirming the call from those two statements “for the church to be in dialogue with those who hold differing views.”

These Membership Guidelines are treated as authoritative directives—certainly being the main basis for affirming that the Mennonite Church USA has an official “teaching position” on homosexuality.  Of course, we actually have three “teaching positions” mentioned there: the affirmation of the Mennonite Confession of Faith’s statement on marriage, the affirmation of the Saskatoon/Purdue statement’s description of “homosexual sexual activity” as sin, and the affirmation of the call for the church “to be in dialogue with those who hold differing views.”  It is a little ironic that, in the name of the “teaching position,” The Mennonite’s editor would restrict the possibilities of dialogue among differing views, and the Mennonite Quarterly Review’s editor would assert that on-going conversation about “homosexual marriage” should be limited.

Clearly, leaders such as Roth and Thomas, when they use the term “teaching position” are thinking of the assertion that “homosexual sexual activity is sin.”  They also seem to assume that this is a clear and settled conclusion.  However, given that the discussion among Mennonites is scarcely over, we would do well to think more carefully about what this “teaching position” might entail, as well as asking more foundational questions about what it’s based on and how its logic works.

One of the first elements of this examination that seems obvious is the lack of detail in the stating of this “teaching position” in the formal documents.  We have only a few documents that this position is based on.  Centrally, we have the afore-mentioned “Membership Guidelines.”  These Guidelines coin the term “teaching position,” but they add no new content to that position, merely citing two earlier documents, the Mennonite Confession of Faith (CofF) and the Purdue/Saskatoon statements (P/S).  So we need to turn to the CofF and P/S for the content of the teaching position.

Before turning to those two documents, though, we may note one point of ambiguity in the Guidelines where the language differs from P/S.  The Guidelines state, in its third “teaching position,” that P/S calls “for the church to be in dialogue with those who hold differing views.”  The actual statement in P/S reads this way: “We covenant with each other to mutually bear the burden of remaining in loving dialogue with each other in the body of Christ, recognizing that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace and that the Holy Spirit may lead us to further truth and repentance….We covenant with each other to take part in the ongoing search for discernment and for openness to each other.”

In P/S, the tone is one of fellow church members in an on-going conversation seeking, with mutual humility, to continue to discern the directing of the Holy Spirit.  Fifteen years later, with the Membership Guidelines, the language has become “the church” being in dialogue “with those who hold differing views.”  This latter statement seems to imply that “the church” and “those who hold differing views” are distinct entities, perhaps even implying that “those who hold differing views” are outside the church.  At the least, the tone in the Membership Guidelines is that the issue is much more settled than it is presented as being in P/S.  However, it appears that the authorization for this “teaching position” of being in dialogue is P/S.  No rationale is given for the change in tone.

Confession of Faith

The first source that is cited in the Membership Guidelines is the 1995 CofF.  That the CofF would be cited as the basis for the “teaching position” on homosexuality is interesting.  This citation, without explanation, gives the impression that the CofF provides clear and direct teaching concerning homosexuality.  However, the actual CofF does not in fact even mention homosexuality.  So, here again we have an example of theology by citation more than by exposition.  It’s enough to cite the official doctrinal statement of MC USA with a prooftext to establish a “teaching position” that then will be used by leaders such as Roth and Thomas to justify closing down discussion.

Let’s look at the actual content of the CofF.  Article 19 addresses “Family, Singleness, and Marriage.”  The first sentence of this article, the sentence quoted in the Membership Guidelines, reads thus: “We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life.”  At the end of this sentence, a footnote reference is given to two biblical texts.

The first text is Mark 10:9: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”  This verse is part of Jesus’ teaching on divorce (which here in Mark is totally rejected) and remarriage (which Jesus names as adultery, i.e., “sin,” Mark 10:11-12).  Note that the CofF cites Mark’s version of Jesus’ teaching which allows for no exceptions to the forbidding of divorce and characterizing of remarriage as sin; it does not cite the slightly more relaxed account in Matthew 19:9 that does allow for a divorce exception in the case of the infidelity of the partner.

The second text is 1 Corinthians 7:10-11: “To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.”  Note that the CofF ends the citation at verse 11 and hence does not include the “exception” of an unbeliever leaving a believing spouse (1 Cor 7:15).

Based on this footnote, then, it seems clear that the thrust of the CofF sentence beginning Article 19 is on the permanence of marriage and the sinfulness of divorce and remarriage (that is, emphasizing the “for life” conclusion to the first sentence).  So, not only does Article 19 not speak directly of homosexuality, the one place that may be seen indirectly to allude to “homosexual practice” (the definition of marriage as “one man, one woman, for life) clearly has in mind a different issue—divorce and remarriage.

That divorce and remarriage are in mind in the first sentence of Article 19 is made even clearer by the commentary on this Article.  The commentary (which is also part of the CofF as officially adopted by the Mennonite Church USA) speaks to the divorce issue and says nothing about homosexuality.  “Today’s church needs to uphold the permanency of marriage and help couples in conflict move toward reconciliation.  At the same time, the church, as a reconciling and forgiving community, offers healing and new beginnings.  The church is to bring strength and healing to individuals and families” (emphasis added).

While we need to note that the commentary and scripture citations make it clear that the sentence from Article 19 of the CofF that is quoted in the Membership Guidelines is being misused when it is construed as a basis for an official “teaching position” concerning homosexuality, we should also notice another point the CofF makes.

The commentary softens the strictness of the CofF article and the two New Testament texts cited.  “At the same time,” the church is a place of welcome and forgiveness.  This comment does not spell out a more nuanced approach to divorce and remarriage, but it does seem to open the door for such.  One could easily draw from this commentary a basis for accepting divorced and remarried people as full members of Mennonite congregations (which, of course, is in fact increasingly the practice).  The point, it would appear, is that the CofF makes a strong statement about the importance of Christian marriage, but implicitly allows for exceptions in the case of divorce and remarriage—exceptions that are not seen, in many contexts, to negate the theological affirmation of the marriage covenant as a life-long commitment.  More important, we could say, than absolute fidelity to the ideal is that the church “brings strength and healing to individuals and families”—including even people who are divorced and remarried.

Could such an approach also be applied to people in same-sex covenanted partnerships?  The CofF could be read in a way that would imply an affirmative answer to this question—if indeed the churches’ priorities should be on bringing “strength and healing.”  Of course, such a reading and application would stand in tension with the Membership Guidelines’ use of the CofF.

Another question we should ask about the Membership Guidelines’ use of the CofF arises when we look at the introduction to the CofF, remembering that the introduction was also affirmed by both the General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church in 1995 when the CofF was officially approved by the denominations.  In the introduction, we read of six ways the CofF “serves the church.”  That is, the CofF itself gives instruction concerning the role it is meant to serve in the Mennonite churches. This is what it says: “How do Mennonite confessions of faith serve the church? First, they provide guidelines for the interpretation of Scripture. At the same time, the confession itself is subject to the authority of the Bible. Second, confessions of faith provide guidance for belief and practice. In this connection, a written statement should support but not replace the lived witness of faith. Third, confessions build a foundation for unity within and among churches. Fourth, confessions offer an outline for instructing new church members and for sharing information with inquirers. Fifth, confessions give an updated interpretation of belief and practice in the midst of changing times. And sixth, confessions help in discussing Mennonite belief and practice with other Christians and people of other faiths.”

What’s missing?  Anything hinting that the CofF is meant to be used as an authoritative basis for a boundary marking “teaching position”—not to mention that the CofF should not be used as the basis for such a “teaching position” on a topic it doesn’t even address.

The Purdue and Saskatoon Statements

What we see, then, when we look carefully at the three bases for the “teaching position” of the Mennonite Church USA on homosexuality are the (1) “Membership Guidelines” that name this “teaching position” while providing no additional content beyond (misleadingly) quoting the (2) CofF and summarizing the (3) P/S statements.

Consequently, for the content of this “teaching position” we are essentially totally reliant on the P/S statements.  What do they say?

First of all, they affirm sexuality as “a good and beautiful gift of God.”  Thus, they imply that sexual intimacy is a good thing, a valuable element of our humanness.  The P/S statements do go on to limit access to this good thing, but they do so with the benefit of doubt that there must be some other wrong that would clearly make this good thing unavailable for faithful Christians.  Sex is good, we should embrace it, only if there is some other wrong involved does this good thing become wrong.

The P/S statements then list cases of the presence of wrong that is wrong enough to make the good of sexual intimacy immoral: wife-battering, premarital sex, extra-marital sex, and homosexual sex.  The statements do not explain why these are wrong, presumably assuming that the rationale is self-evident.  We would have a pretty easy time identifying the wrong in wife-battering, premarital sex, and extramarital sex.  But what about “homosexual genital activity” as a single category?  What is wrong with this “activity”?

Basically, all the P/S statements offer is a simple statement: “We understand the Bible to teach that genital intercourse is reserved for a man and a woman united in a marriage covenant and that violation even within the relationship. i.e., wife battering, is a sin. It is our understanding that this teaching also precludes premarital, extramarital, and homosexual genital activity. We further understand the Bible to teach the sanctity of the marriage covenant and that any violation of this covenant is sin.”  (this is the wording of the Purdue Statement, slightly changed from the earlier Saskatoon statement).

Boiled down, the P/S statement says, the Bible teaches that all homosexual genital activity is sinful.  This is pretty cryptic.  No texts are cited to illustrate this teaching.  No clear definition of “homosexual genital activity” is given.  No clarity is offered concerning other elements of the physical and emotional elements of intimate partnerships.

This statement seems to reflect the general assumptions of the common “people in the pews” that the Bible clearly is “against homosexuality.”[4] What is not often discussed is what this “against homosexuality” refers to.  I will suggest three general responses to this question—all of which would indeed agree that the “Bible is against homosexuality” but draw quite different implications from that statement.

That this is a complicated discussion should be recognized first off from the fact that the term “homosexuality” is itself never used in the Bible nor anything approaching such a term.  The word itself is recent, and is a joining together of Greek and Latin roots.  Neither biblical Hebrew nor biblical Greek have any words like this.

The places in the Bible that are generally understood to speak about “homosexuality” all make reference to specific actions, not a broad category of people (such as today’s “homosexuals”).  In Genesis 18–19, the story refers to men of the city wanting to “know” their male visitors (i.e., presumably have sex with them).  In Leviticus 18 and 20, the commands prohibit men “laying with other men as with women.”  In Romans 1, Paul writes of men consumed with lust for other men.  And in 1 Corinthians 6 (echoed in 1 Timothy 1), included in a list of vices, Paul mentions “men laying” (presumably with other men assuming Paul has Leviticus in mind, though the invented word for “men laying” does not specify who the men are laying with).

So, we cannot simply find a proof text where the Bible refers explicitly to “homosexuality.”  Rather, we have these several references to problematic things some men do.  These are three common understandings of what the “Bible is against homosexuality” conclusion might mean:

(1) It is believed by some that the “Bible is against homosexuality” conclusion has to do with a general condemnation of the entire spectrum of what we today would have in mind when we use the term “homosexuality” including the same-sex affectional orientation, sexual intimacy between same-sex partners in the context of marriage-like relationships, and sexual acts that are also understood to be sinful when engaged in by heterosexual people.

(2) It is believed by others that the “Bible is against homosexuality” conclusion is points toward the sinfulness of all types of same-sex sexual intimacy but not the affectional orientation.  This would appear to be the view reflected in the documents said to form the “teaching position” of the Mennonite Church (USA).  The Mennonite “teaching position” presents itself as biblically based and suggests that it is not the orientation but the “practice” that is proscribed by the Bible.  This understanding would also be common among many on the inclusive side who would then go on to argue that the Bible being “against homosexuality” is not binding for present-day Christian ethics.

(3) And it is believed by others that “the Bible is against homosexuality” conclusion should be linked with the specific kinds of activity referred to in the direct texts.  This view would probably prefer language that does not use the broad term “homosexuality” but refers more specific to the actual behaviors that are mentioned—so, the Bible is against inhospitable gang rape that is used to deny hospitality to visitors (Genesis 18–19).[5] The Bible is against sexual acts that are non-procreative in the context of the community’s survival being at stake (Leviticus 18, 20).  The Bible is against lustful, promiscuous sex that reflects idolatrous practices (Romans 1).  The Bible is against unjust sexual practices that are economically driven (1 Corinthians 6).  These are practices that are sinful for both heterosexual and same-sex couples.  At least some who share this understanding would also believe that sexual intimacy that is acceptable for opposite sex partners would also implicitly be acceptable for same sex partners.

As a consequence of recognizing these three quite distinct understandings of the truthful conclusion “the Bible is against homosexuality,” we must recognize that that simple statement does not provide much help for the churches in their discernment concerning the acceptability of gay Christians in the churches.

The discussion of differences regarding understandings of the phrase “the Bible is against homosexuality” may then be expanded to include another significant definitional difference with major implications for how churches negotiate our issue.  This is the difference in meaning between using the term “homosexual practice” (singular) versus “homosexual practices” (plural).

The use of the term in the singular is characteristic for many who wrote in support of the restrictive approach, including Mennonite scholars Willard Swartley and Mark Thiessen Nation who are in turn heavily influenced by Robert Gagnon’s massive The Bible and Homosexual Practice.[6] Unfortunately, none of these writers take the time to explain why precisely they insist on the singular “practice” and what the implications of that usage are for how they address the issues and especially for how they interpret and apply the “direct texts” in the Bible said to be definitive for the churches’ approach to our issue.

So, we need briefly to piece together the logic behind and the ramifications of this usage.  All of these writers, even if they don’t use this language, would agree that there are many “heterosexual practices” when it comes to sexual behavior.  Nation, for example, writes directly about the goodness of morally appropriate sexual intimacy (within the context of opposite-sex marriages).  He also writes of morally inappropriate “heterosexual practices” (e.g., a friend who suffered from a sexual addiction).  So, we have “heterosexual practices” (that is, occasions for sexual intimacy)—some sinful, some blessed by God as good.

However, we have only one “homosexual practice,” always sinful.  What might this mean?  It would seem that what these writers must be saying is that all the various forms of sexual intimacy that might be practiced by same-sex couples fit into a single category for the purposes of moral discernment.  What follows from such an understanding is the practical conclusion that since each type of same-sex sexual intimacy is an example of “homosexual practice” and “homosexual practice” (of whatever variety) is sinful, we do not need to pay much attention to what specific type of behavior is in mind when we conclude that it is wrong.

So, when we turn to the Bible, we do not need to concern ourselves with the specific context or type of behavior our several direct texts speak to.  If today’s same-sex marriages between two committed Christians fit into this rubric of “homosexual practice” they are wrong, just as all the allusions to “homosexual practice” in the Bible are also wrong.

We may identify two ramifications from this logic.  First, since there is just one “homosexual practice,” all we need to establish from the Bible is that this “practice” is condemned in order to be certain that every type of behavior that is an example of this one practice is sinful.  And, clearly we may establish this condemnation from the direct texts that all are negative about this “practice.”  Second, we accept that “homosexual” and “heterosexual” sexual behaviors are not morally parallel.  We may recognize a variety of “heterosexual practices,” each with its own distinct moral status, while also recognizing only one “homosexual practice” with a uniform moral status for all varieties of behavior within this single “practice.”

When we consider the other option, seeing a variety of “homosexual practices” analogous to the variety of “heterosexual practices,” we can see why so many of the inclusive/restrictive conversations make little progress.  This is so, at least in part, because one’s understanding of whether we should be thinking in terms of a single homosexual “practice” and a variety of homosexual “practices” will greatly shape one’s way of reading and applying the Bible.

Those who are more inclined to think in terms of “homosexual practices” with distinct kinds of moral status for the distinct practices (parallel to how everyone seems to think of “heterosexual practices”) will put much more weight on the specific contexts for the direct texts.  They may well think that texts that when read in context actually are proscribing specific practices for men (all the direct texts that clearly link behavior with gender refer to men[7]) that would be equally sinful for same-sex and opposite-sex couples.  If so, they would reason, there is no reason not to assume based on the Bible itself that “practices” that are morally approved for opposite-sex couples might not also be acceptable for same-sex couples.

Turning back to the P/S statements, we also have a clause that calls the churches to “confess our fear and repent of our absence of love toward those with a different sexual orientation.”  This clause leads to several questions.  As it stands, it is pretty cryptic.  What would such a confession entail?  Would the expectation be that the repentance would lead to any efforts at overcoming the problems caused by the “absence of love”?  What might those problems be?  Might the use of the P/S statements themselves as boundary-marking absolutes about the sinfulness of “homosexual practice” and the main basis for the “teaching position” that in practice is used to shut down the promised on-going process of conversation among fellow-church members about there different views on homosexuality itself be an expression of “absence of love”?  Who determines whether the “absence of love” is truly overcome—those who make this confession or those who have born the brunt of this absence?

A different kind of question emerges in relation to the acknowledgement of “a different sexual orientation” here.  As has commonly been expressed as the intent of the P/S statements, the general sense of the statement as a whole is to combine two affirmations: (1) some people are fundamentally affectionally attracted to people of their same sex, and (2) such people are forbidden by the churches to enter into same-sex intimate partnerships (since 1987, when the P/S statements were written, the possibility of actual legal same-sex marriages has become a reality, so calling same-sex partnerships “extramarital” or “pre-marital” by definition is no longer possible).  These two points obviously stand in tension with one another.  The tension heightens when we add to the mix the earlier part of the P/S statements that makes a strong affirmation of the goodness of sexuality (with the implication I have noted that the logic of the statement seems to be that only some clear moral wrong would override the acceptance of the goodness of sexual expression for Christians).

These questions and tensions and the acknowledgment of differences within the churches (“We covenant with each other to mutually bear the burden of remaining in loving dialogue with each other in the body of Christ, recognizing that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace and that the Holy Spirit may lead us to further truth and repentance.” Purdue) leave us in a bit of a quandary.  We could reject the possibility of some people having a fundamental attraction toward people of the same sex.  We could nuance our understanding of the Bible’s teaching on this issue to allow that some same-sex intimate relationships might not be forbidden for Christians.  We could decide that the commitment to “remaining in loving dialogue” is not as important as establishing clear boundary lines and moving ahead without continuing debates.  We could assume that the P/S statements were only occasional, ad hoc formulations from a past generation that no longer speak for Mennonites.  Probably we will have to follow at least one of these possibilities (many of us already have).

Certainly, though, the P/S statements alone do not provide us with much guidance (in spite of the authoritarian use of them by the Membership Guidelines).  They don’t give us explanations or rationales or clarity about many of the most important questions.  At the heart of their message, especially as inferred in the Membership Guidelines, is a reassertion of the basic unquestioned assumption that characterizes much of the discussion on the homosexuality issue in general:  “The Bible teaches….”

However, the P/S statements do not explain what the Bible teaches.  They cite no texts—either about sex in heterosexual marriage or about “homosexual practice.”  They also do not cite any teaching documents that would explain what the Bible teaches except, a bit ironically, the “working document for study and dialogue” commissioned by the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church, published in 1985 as Human Sexuality in the Christian Life.  This citation is ironic because that book, a careful, thoughtful, 166-page treatment of a wide variety of themes (only 16 pages are devoted to homosexuality) does not support the simplistic conclusion of the P/S statements.  The Human Sexuality book reflects the genuine differences in the churches on homosexuality and draws no clear conclusions on what “the Bible teaches.”

Human Sexuality, a study document prepared by a large committee made up of a wide diversity of Mennonites, asserts after its survey of the “direct texts” of the Bible: “The passages reviewed above focus rather narrowly on specific homosexual acts and by themselves do not help us move toward redemptive actions.”[8] The section on homosexuality concludes with a comment that points in the opposite direction than that taken by the P/S statements: “If the church should err, let it be on the side of caring for and loving a group of people who are much persecuted in our society.”[9]

The “teaching position,” as affirmed in the Membership Guidelines, lacks the nuances of the Human Sexuality study, depending solely on the P/S statements and ignoring the one official study document the ancestor denominations of MC USA commissioned.  Instead of the careful, if brief, recognition of the complex content of the Bible on sexuality issues presented in Human Sexuality, the “teaching position” relies simply on the P/S statement that “the Bible teaches… homosexual genital activity is sin” without any elaboration.

So, the role the Bible actually plays in the “teaching position” is more as a source of authority for the global condemnation of “homosexual practice.”  It is the Bible’s authority that matters, not careful consideration of its content in all its complexity.  And the authority of the Bible here is impossible to reason with since the P/S statements provide no content from the Bible itself.

The logic of the “teaching position”

Interestingly, though, when we consider ways the logic of the position on homosexual practice actually works, we see that the Bible may not actually play as central a role as is generally assumed.  Since we don’t have any specific biblical content in the “teaching position,” we need to extrapolate a bit in relation to other writings on this issue.[10]

But this is how the logic seems to work.  The “teaching position,” in a nutshell, is that “homosexual practice” is sin.  That is, given the use of the singular “practice,” that any possible sexually intimate relationship including fidelity in the context of marriage, is sin and hence to be rejected by the church.

Why do we say this?  Because the Bible teaches this.  Though the documents that the “teaching position” affirmed in the Membership Guidelines rests on (CofF and P/S statements) don’t themselves refer to any specific places where the Bible teaches this, we may learn from scholars such as Mark Thiessen Nation and Willard Swartley that texts such as Leviticus 18 and 20, Romans 1, and 1 Corinthians 6 do give us the data we need to know that the Bible condemns “homosexual practice” as sin—and that this condemnation extends to same-sex marriage.

But, in light of my above discussion on the difference between thinking in terms of “homosexual practice” (singular, different than “heterosexual practices”) and “homosexual practices” (plural, parallel with “heterosexual practices”), how do we know that the “direct texts” (which everyone agrees do not speak of same-sex marriage) should be seen as support for condemning all possible homosexual practices (including same-sex marriage)?

It’s impossible to say for sure, because I am not aware of anyone supportive of understanding the Membership Guidelines’ “teaching position” as condemning same-sex marriage having addressed the question as I have posed it.  However, it does seem that for many (e.g., Swartley), the basis for knowing that same-sex marriage is condemned is not so much biblical authority as it is what we could call general revelation.  That is, because only opposite sex marriage is “natural”—capable of producing biological offspring, the way bodies fit together, what seems to most people over most of history as disgusting.

So, actually, the basis for the “teaching position” may not so much be “the Bible teaches…” as what seems best to fit with human experience.  However, once the locus moves from the direct texts, then much of the rhetorical force of the “teaching position” is lost.  Once we are in the realm of human experience many other kinds of questions arise.  Why should some people’s opinions about what is natural (the way males and females fit) carry more weight than other people’s opinions about what is natural (some people are both with both a fundamental attraction toward people of their same sex and an inclination to flourish best with an intimate partner—just like those with a fundamental attraction toward those of the opposite sex)?

[1]Negotiating the language debates seems like an impossible task.  We can easily enter into an interminable process of defining terms and never get beyond those debates.  However, the vast majority of writing on this topic tends to go to the other extreme and use complicated terms without definition.  What I will try to do in this paper is define the terms I will be using without devoting much energy to defending those definitions.

Right away we face the issue of our overall rubric.  I am choosing to use the word “gay” as an umbrella term for people whose primary affectional attraction is toward people of their same sex and who affirm that attraction as part of their own identity generally with the additional affirmation of openness toward entering into an intimate relationship with a person of the same sex.

[2] Admittedly, this last statement will be contested by many on the restrictive side who cite the creation account and Jesus’ quoting from that account as biblical bases for this argument.  I would submit, though, that the Bible never uses its allusions to creation to make this kind of statement.  The connection between creation and what is “natural” in marriage seems to owe much more to natural law than biblical teaching.

[3] John D. Roth, “Challenges of ‘Cross-Cultural’ Communication: A Response to C. Norman Kraus,” in Michael A. King, ed., Stumbling Toward a Genuine Conversation on Homosexuality (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2007), 62 (emphasis added).  Note that Roth simply cites the existence of the “teaching position” without saying what this position is.  This focus on citation rather than exposition turns out to be common for those on the restrictive side of this dicussion.

[4] This assumption is reflected in this comment by Mark Thiessen Nation in the midst of his and my “conversation on homosexuality”: “I do believe it is important that we look carefully at [the most immediately relevant passages of Scripture].  But I think one of the reasons I have shied away from offering this sort of detailed discussion of all the passages is because, in some ways, I think it is a diversion.  I tend to think we would get farther if we simply stipulated that the Bible says homosexual practice is wrong.  Then let’s spend our time arguing about whether or not we still agree with that and why” (Ted Grimsrud and Mark Thiessen Nation, Reasoning Together: A Conversation on Homosexuality [Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2008], 207).

[5] See Marti Nissinen, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998).

[6] See also the document issued in July 1991 by the Mennonite Church General Board, “Summary Statements on Homosexuality”: “We support the several ministries in our church for assisting homosexual persons who desire…freedom from same-sex practice.”  Accessed on Loren John’s website: <;.

[7] The one often-cited possible exception is Romans 1:26-27.  This passage reads (NRSV): “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.  Men exchanged shameless acts with men….”  We simply cannot say with certainty what the “same way” that links the women’s behavior with the men’s refers to here—either “consumed with passion” or “for one another.”  Is Paul’s concern the “unnaturalness” of the women being “consumed with passion” and acting lustfully or is it the “unnaturalness” of the women having sex with other women?  It could be either.  One’s conclusion likely follows from one’s sense of Paul’s overriding concern here—with out of control promiscuous sex or with same-sex sex.  Strong arguments can be made either way, at least making clear that this text (the only one remotely hinting at “female homosexuality” in the entire Bible) cannot be used as a basis for the certain assertion that the Bible has in mind a “homosexuality” that equally includes males and females that it is against.

[8] Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church, Human Sexuality in the Christian Life: A Working Document for Study and Dialogue (1985), 113.

[9] Human Sexuality, 118.  In fact one member of the committee that produced Human Sexuality later published an article where he expressed dismay of how political machinations undermined the careful, consensus-building work of the committee and resulted in a highly problematic “official” statement.  See Maynard Shelly, “Compassion for Today’s Lepers,” Mennonite Weekly Review (April 18, 1996).  Shelly wrote about the work of this committee: “We prepared reports for the church not only on homosexuality but also on the broad range of related issues from marriage and singleness to intimacy and abuse.  We drew on the teachings of the Bible from Genesis to Jesus.  Though we reflected differing points of view, we agreed on a statement that opened a small door for gays and lesbians to feel they belonged to our Christian family.  That was our best judgment after six years of prayer and study.  But the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church General Boards rewrote out statements for Saskatoon ’86 and Purdue ’87.  They closed the door to fellowship with our homosexual children.  Politics won out over prophecy.”

The GCs and MCs undertook one other sustained organized effort to gather together a representative group of congregational representatives to pay sustained attention to discernment concerning homosexuality among Mennonites.  The “Joint Listening Committee for Homosexual Concerns” was formed by the two General Boards in 1990 and completed its work in 1992.  The Listening Committee understood its mandate to follow from the P/S statements expressed commitment to ongoing “loving dialogue” and focused its energies on soliciting input from various church members, especially those attending the denominations’ three General Assemblies that occurred during the course of the Committee’s life.

The Listening Committee’s final report included a strong recommendation that in light of the on-going questions and disagreements they had heard from church members concerning biblical and theological understandings of the issues related to homosexuality, that the denominations “intensify its efforts to help congregations study homosexuality to discern how homosexuals can relate to the church’s life and ministry” (quoted in Melanie Zuercher and Ed Stoltfzfus, “The Story of the Listening Committee,” in C. Norman Kraus, ed. To Continue the Dialogue: Biblical Interpretation and Homosexuality [Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2001], 84).

Both General Boards rejected this recommendation and decided to make the Listening Committee’s final report available only to those who requested it (instead of formally releasing it).  And the copies made available in this way did not include the Committee’s concluding sections of recommendations (the entire report, with recommendations, was published in Kraus, ed., To Continue, 303-322; it is available on-line at: [accessed 5/6/10].

The irony of the General Boards’ decision not to pursue helping “congregations study homosexuality” in 1992-3 may be seen when nearly 20 years later, the merged Mennonite Church USA, at its General Assembly, passed a resolution that stated, “We affirm the church’s commitment to ongoing dialogue and discernment, and ‘agreeing and disagreeing in love.’ We confess that we as a church (congregations, conferences, denomination) have rarely found a way to create a healthy, safe environment in which to have this dialogue, one that builds up the Body of Christ, and is respectful and honest about our differences.And so we call upon the Executive Board of Mennonite Church USA to work with conferences to provide and encourage the use of resources which assist conferences and congregations to engage in this discernment. Our hope is for a broad range of resources that help us live faithfully, extending hospitality to all of God’s people” (The Mennonite [July 7, 2009]) [online at; accessed 5/6/10].

[10] The two most thorough treatments of these issues from an overtly Mennonite perspective that are supportive of the “teaching position,” both published by the Mennonite Publishing House and written by Mennonite seminary professors, are Willard M. Swartley, Homosexuality: Biblical Interpretation and Moral Discernment (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2003), and Mark Thiessen Nation’s contributions to Grimsrud and Nation, Reasoning Together.

Lectures on Homosexuality

The weekend of February 5-7, 2010, I presented three lectures as part of a conversation on homosexuality at Portland (Oregon) Mennonite Church.  Here are the three lectures, plus a fourth article where I sketch several of the issues that came up over the weekend that I would address could I give the lectures over again.

(1) The Evolution of My Views

(2) The Biblical Message

(3) Contemporary Issues

(4) Epilogue

A Conversation on Homosexuality: The Welcome Side

[Ted Grimsrud – Eastern Mennonite University  Dialogue with Mark Thiessen Nation – February 19, 2009]

Introduction: Starting with Jesus

In my general approach to theology and ethics, my starting point is the life and teaching of Jesus.  At the heart of Jesus’ message, I believe, we find his double command to love God and love neighbor.  So, in thinking about the church’s response to gay and lesbian Christians, I want to start with Jesus. 

Here’s one angle: How did Jesus relate to “sinners”?  We need to think carefully here.  Let me suggest two somewhat different senses of the category “sinners.”  The first sense would refer to people who violate the Law or in some other sense go against God’s will by their actions or inaction.

Jesus certainly taught that God’s mercy offers healing for all of these “sinners” when they turn back to God, even really bad “sinners.”  A great example in the Gospels is Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son.  This young man, by any measure, violated central commands – especially honor your parents and keep pure eating habits.  But he is forgiven.  A second famous example is the woman caught in adultery, who Jesus forgave. 

Both these cases stories, do emphasize God’s healing mercy that reaches even to the worst offenders.  However, both also make clear that “sinners,” in the sense of those who violate the core concerns of the Law, are expected to repent and to turn from their sinful ways.

But there is also a second kind of “sinner.”  “Sinner” also refers to those labeled sinners by the religious leaders, people who, in Jesus’ view, were not actually guilty of violating the core concerns of the law.  People excluded from Israel’s religious life due to their poverty, for example, or some disease such as leprosy.  For these “sinners,” Jesus offered welcome – you are fully a part of God’s people just as you are.  Of course, like everyone else would be part of God’s people you are called to love God and your neighbor wholeheartedly.  But you are not excluded because of a label placed on you that has to do with your identity and not an actual violation of the commands, of Torah.

Mark and I seem to disagree about which sense of “sinner” we should consider gay and lesbian Christians who are in committed relationships.  Are they sinners who due simply to the gender of their significant other violate the core concerns of Torah? Or are they sinners who are being inappropriately excluded from full membership in the faith community due to labels that are placed on them?

I want to be clear, though, in stating where we agree.  The inclusion of sinners that is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry is not simply a blind tolerance that says “I’m okay, you’re okay, we all have our faults, and we are all equally a part of God’s community regardless of whether we are seeking to follow the commandments or not.” 

So, I believe that Jesus, in his welcome of those inappropriately labeled “sinners,” challenges us to do likewise.  So we should welcome gay and lesbian Christians who seek to live faithfully and find themselves in relationships of mutual commitment and fidelity with people of their same sex. 

On the one hand, we should recognize that Christianity’s hostility toward gay and lesbian Christians parallels the dynamics that Jesus critiqued in his day – the inappropriate use of the category of “sinner” to exclude people who are the victims of prejudice and are living faithful lives.  On the other hand, we should affirm that our standards for people in heterosexual marriages also be applied to people in same-sex relationships: sexual intimacy only in the context of a monogamous, covenanted, faithful relationship.

Broader Biblical Support for Jesus’ Welcoming Stance

When we read the Bible with Jesus’ love command as our interpretive lens we will find much support for this understanding of welcome.  I will mention only two examples.

In the Old Testament Law, we find something crucial.  At its heart lay the call for the community, especially self-conscious ways to care for vulnerable people in its midst. Leviticus 19, for example, calls for special attentiveness to widows, to orphans, and to resident aliens – those without the kinship links that were so important to people’s wellbeing.  This concern for vulnerable people within the community finds expression throughout the Old Testament in prophetic critiques from Amos to Jeremiah and beyond.

I believe that one class of people in our churches today who are particularly vulnerable are gay and lesbian people.  The history of hostility from church and society has resulted in persecution, exclusion, acts of psychological and even physical violence.  The spirit of Torah, especially as embodied by Jesus, challenges churches today to transform their attitudes from hostility to hospitality toward gays.

My second biblical example supporting Jesus’ welcoming approach is how Paul underlines Jesus’ message.  He writes in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Paul emphasizes here that allegiance to Christ transcends common boundary lines often used to exclude—ethnicity, social status, gender.  All who trust in Jesus and seek to follow his way are included in his body, regardless of whatever labels might have in the past been used to push “outsiders” away.

Paul teaches two themes that echo Jesus’ approach.  First, human labels are abolished in Christ.  Especially those labeled by “insiders” as being outsiders are to be included without discrimination when they trust in Jesus.  Second, for all who join in the body of Christ, following basic standards of ethical faithfulness is expected.

A Bias Toward Welcome

From these biblical themes, I draw the conclusion that our bias should be in favor of welcome for all who trust in Jesus and seek to follow him.  We should be especially welcoming toward people who are vulnerable in various ways to being treated with violence and hostility, who may lack resources, power, and easy access to social acceptance.

Our churches, thus, should be inclined to welcome gay and lesbian Christians, including those in committed relationships – even as our churches continue to hold all members to high standards of fidelity and commitment in marriage.

We find in the Bible a call to offer welcome to those inappropriately labeled “sinners.”  We find a call to express special concern for vulnerable people.  And we find a call to recognize our oneness in Christ that transcends exclusive boundary markers.  These points all support an inclusive approach toward gay and lesbian Christians.

Testing Our Benefit of the Doubt

However, we can’t simply leave the discussion here.  If there is indeed something inherently wrong or sinful about same-sex relationships, we would then have reason to override this benefit of the doubt toward inclusion.  Jesus’ message of welcome is not based on ignoring the call to faithful living.  If some behavior is intrinsically unlawful, intrinsically harmful to persons and communities, then Jesus would have us expect that that behavior be changed for people to be full participants in the community.

However, with our inclination toward welcome based on Jesus and the rest of the Bible, we should ask for strong evidence that intimate same-sex relationships are wrong simply because they are with same-sex partners.  What could constitute a high enough standard of proof?  I can think of three obvious possibilities.  One would be if there clearly is something inherently harmful in our present experience about the “same-sexness” of same-sex partnerships.  A second would be if we had strong reasons to believe that recognizing same-sex marriage would in some way undercut the churches’ commitment to heterosexual marriage.  And a third is if we have clear commands in the Bible forbidding such relationships for Christians.

Of course, many Christians do believe we have clear teachings on each of these points.  I am not convinced, however.

(1) Is the “same-sexness” of same sex partnerships intrinsically harmful? On the issue of harm, it is true that a great deal of harm does result from the sexual behavior of many gay men – both physical problems and the emotional problems related to promiscuity.  However, it is hard to see how any of these problems would be present in, say, a covenanted, monogamous lesbian partnership.  That is, these problems do not seem to be related to the “same-sexness” of the partnership per se. 

I believe it is an empirical fact that many same-sex partnerships for both men and women are healthy in every way.  I know several among friends of mine – in two cases now for over 20 years, in another for over 40 years, and in two other cases now for over 10 years.

We all know of sexual behaviors among heterosexual people that are harmful – coercive sex, promiscuity, unfaithfulness, sexually transmitted diseases.  But we don’t make generalizations about all “heterosexual practice” being wrong – instead, we seek to foster healthy partnerships because we know that most human beings flourish best when they are in healthy marriages.  I would simply say that we should approach same-sex partnerships in the same way – critiquing the harmful practices and supporting the healthy ones.

(2) Does same-sex marriage undermine heterosexual marriage? The idea that same-sex marriage would in some way undercut our commitment to the importance of heterosexual marriage seems illogical to me.  Look at the failure of our churches and wider culture to sustain permanent heterosexual marriages.  To think that now gay marriage is a threat to heterosexual marriage seems misguided—obviously other things have created the crisis.  Blessing people who want to make a commitment of fidelity to one person for life would, I think, only strengthen the broader institution of marriage (and perhaps provide heterosexual people with some positive role models!). 

It is true that the Bible only speaks of marriage between men and women.  Such biblical allusions encourage us to value marriage a great deal and should lead the churches to work hard at supporting the child-rearing task many marriages have.  However, I simply don’t see a connection between valuing heterosexual marriage and childrearing as our norm on the one hand (which I strongly do) and finding same-sex marriage to be bad on the other hand (which I don’t). 

To be an exception to the norm need not make something a threat to that norm.  We affirm other exceptions to the norm of male + female for life + children without seeing them as a threat—for example, marriages without children and second marriages for divorced folks.  Why can’t we see same-sex marriage as complementary to heterosexual marriage—a way to affirm another kind of life partnership that operates with fidelity and commitment in satisfying the human need for emotional and physical intimacy?

 (3) Does the Bible command Christians not to enter into same-sex partnerships? The Christian tradition has, of course, centered its negative attitude toward same-sex partnerships on the third of our points – that the Bible has been understood to be commanding Christians not to be part of such partnerships.  In this final section, I will respond to this issue.

First of all, I think we should ask for clear proof that the Bible requires Christians to override what I see to be an inclination otherwise toward welcome of gays and lesbians who trust in Jesus and who follow the same ethical norms concerning sexuality as heterosexual people.  When we read the Bible looking for such proof one thing we will notice is that the Bible does not contain any direct commands to Christians concerning same-sex relationships.

(a) Leviticus. The Bible contains only a tiny handful of texts that can be read as in any way speaking directly to same-sex relationships.  The only place where the texts voice a command directed to people in the community of faith is in the book of Leviticus, chapters 18 and 20. 

If this is indeed the only direct command, we may question whether it can serve as a normative statement for Christians.  Most obviously, the statements in Leviticus come in the context of a number of other commands that Christians do not believe are normative for our ethics: not planting more than one crop in a given field, not wearing clothing of mixed fibers, not having sex during a woman’s period, no masturbation.  As important Leviticus indeed is for Christian ethics in a general, background kind of way, we do not look there for our direct commands for Christian ethics.

Also, Leviticus speaks only to the behavior of men, not of same sex intimacy in general.  In the direct context of the prohibition on males having sex with other males are various other prohibitions that have to do with male sexual behavior.  So we need to ask what might the reasons be for this kind of specific prohibition that clearly is not a general statement about all possible expressions of same-sex sexual intimacy.

I think the immediate context for those commands concerning men not having sex with other men may be this:  It was, in part at least, related to the need for children in their community, and the problem of men “wasting their seed” and hence not focusing on the bringing of children into their society.  Hence, we have prohibitions in Leviticus 19:19-24 of sexual acts that do not produce legitimate offspring: masturbation, having sex with their wives during their periods, sex outside of marriage, sex with animals.  Plus, there is the one non-sexual prohibition—direct child sacrifice (obviously resulting in the loss of offspring).

In trying to make sense of this list of prohibitions, it seems that we should search for an explanation of them that includes all of the pieces (for example, the idea that the prohibition of male/male sex stems from a concern with two men being too much like one another and human/animal sex involving partners too much unlike one another seems doubtful because it does not speak at all to the prohibitions of child sacrifice or masturbation or sex during menstruation).  The most obvious rationale is this concern for offspring.  And that clearly is a context-specific basis that we would not longer find binding. 

Some of the prohibitions (such as adultery and bestiality) we continue to accept because we have reasons beyond simply their being listed here in Leviticus. Some of the other prohibitions (such as masturbation and sex during menstruation [which relies on a view of feminine impurity that we now reject]) we no longer follow.  So, the normativity of the prohibition of male/male sex needs to be established on grounds beyond simply its presence here in Leviticus. 

The Leviticus commands would have more weight if we had other complementary texts that told why men having sex with men was a problem or that illustrated this problem by telling a story about it (such as how the story of David with Bathsheba illustrates the problem with adultery).  But we don’t.  So, the Leviticus text is merely a cryptic command with no explanation of its meaning.

When we turn to the New Testament, we have three texts that are commonly cited.  Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 are the more important of the three – 1 Timothy 1 seems clearly derivative from 1 Corinthians 6 and adds no additional content.

(b) Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6. The Romans and 1 Corinthians texts both use allusions to same-sex sex in order to address issues other than the sexual behavior of people in the churches.  Neither is framed as a statement to Christians: Paul does not say, this is what you are and are not to do in your sexual relationships.  Instead, both texts illustrate unjust behavior of people outside the community of faith in order to make points about Christian behavior that have nothing to do with sexual practices. 

In Romans 1, Paul challenges all people, in the church and out, to recognize that they are sinful and in need of the mercy of God shown through Jesus Christ.  Paul points to idolatrous behavior (including lustful sex) on the part of those outside the community of faith.  He does this in order then to tell his readers that they too are sinful (“all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”) and that they have no basis for being self-righteous and judgmental toward others.

Of course, Paul does not imply that the unjust behaviors of these idolaters are morally acceptable.  But this behavior is clearly that of unbelievers and is obviously violent and unjust (as the other elements of their behavior that he mentions make clear—murder, strife, heartlessness, and the like).  Paul does not have in mind people within the churches whose lives are consistently faithful except perhaps for the gender of their intimate partners.

In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul takes up the problem of people who are part of the Christian fellowship suing others in their congregation in secular courts.  Paul sharply rejects such actions.  He says the people who run those secular courts are unjust, just as the Corinthians Christians used to be before meeting Christ.  To drive this point home, Paul lists various types of characteristics of such unjust people.  In this list, all the items allude to injustice of one kind or another.  Paul here uses two words without explanation that are often translated (I would say, misleadingly) in ways that have homosexual connotations.

One of the these words, malakos, literally means “soft” and is used in Matthew’s gospel of a “soft” coat.  In various first-century texts it has the sense of morally soft in general and sometimes of morally soft in relation to sexual behavior.  In these latter cases, at least sometimes it appears that part of the problem is seen to be in male effeminacy.  So, malakos could have a connotation of male/male sexuality in some contexts, but need not.  It could simply mean morally lax in a general sense.

The other word, arsenokoitai, may have a sense of male/male sexual behavior since it literally means “men laying.”  This could imply “men laying other men” along the lines of the Greek translation of the Leviticus 18 and 20 texts (though it could also imply “men laying” with prostitutes or other men’s wives).  We simply have no way of knowing the precise meaning Paul had in mind.  He does not spell it out in 1 Corinthians 6, and there are no other writings that we know of in all of the first century that ever use this word except 1 Timothy 1:10.

Regardless of what arsenokoitai literally means, it does seem clear that in 1 Corinthians 6, Paul is not concerned with telling Christians how they should behave sexually.  He is concerned with challenging their practice of taking each other to secular courts that are characterized by the worst kinds of injustice.


So, we simply don’t have any direct teaching in the Bible aimed specifically at Christians that would clearly override the biblical bias on behalf of welcoming all who trust in Christ.  Leviticus, Romans, and 1 Corinthians all address concerns very different from the question of whether, for example, a couple I know, two Christian women in a covenanted partnership who live faithful lives, should be restricted in their church involvement only because each is in a monogamous, committed relationship with a woman instead of a man.

That is, there really seems to be no basis in the Bible to forbid same-sex relationships simply based on the fact that they are same-sex.  But there are bases in the Bible to welcome as full members into the fellowship people who are inappropriately labeled “sinners.”

Today’s American Christian churches face major challenges in the face of failed heterosexual marriages, in the face of sexual misbehavior of all kinds.  I would suggest that the best place to draw our lines is not in excluding same-sex couples who are committed to fidelity and monogamy.  Rather, all of us who believe in fidelity and monogamy and sex only in the context of covenanted relationships should make common cause and embrace such fidelity wherever it occurs, creating communities that encourage faithfulness from all of us in our intimate relationships.

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

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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