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. Continue reading

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.


Peace Theology Book Review Index