David Gushee’s Brave New Biblical Sexual Ethics

by
November 10, 2014

The evangelical theologian David Gushee, who teaches at Mercer University, made a splash recently with a Washington Post op-ed summarizing the grounds for a change of his mind on Christian sexual ethics, particularly with a view to how the church should reach out to persons with same-sex attraction and those in same-sex relationships. Gushee declares that he now “stands in solidarity with the LGBT community,” which for him means that Christians now “need to reconsider the entire body of biblical interpretation and tradition related to this issue.” In short, Gushee has now concluded that there is no scriptural foundation for treating homosexual acts as morally wrong. Same-sex-attracted persons, therefore, should be welcomed in the church with “full acceptance” on terms that respect and honor their desires and deeds.

Because I am a Catholic, not an evangelical, and because I am a political theorist and constitutional scholar, not a theologian, I was only dimly aware of David Gushee before his Post essay. But that essay “mainstreamed” an argument that should be of interest to all Christians, so I went to the series of sixteen online columns Gushee wrote for Baptist News Global over the last few months (the last installment here has links to all the previous ones), now also published as a short book. And I have to say I was taken aback, not by the conclusions about sexuality Gushee reaches, which are perfectly conventional in the world today, but by the sophistry he employs to square those conclusions with scripture-based Christian sexual ethics.

As I tweeted after reading his Post essay, Gushee gives us bad anthropology, shallow theology, and uncharitable ethics, but impeccable social fashion for today’s world. He also—and this is not central to his argument, but appears to be essential to his opinion of himself—makes a repeated comparison of himself and his like-minded Christian friends to the brave leaders of the American civil rights movement a half century ago, and even to the martyred hero of Christian resistance to Nazism, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. That is simply appalling, coming from a man who is now only in danger of being lionized, not fed to the lions, tortured and executed like Bonhoeffer, or attacked with dogs and firehoses.

Here is my own summary of Gushee’s extended argument through his column series, as fairly as I can make it out:

  • Gay people exist among us, and cannot change.
  • Being cruel to them is wrong.
  • Some Christians, including some gays, believe a Christian sexual ethic requires celibacy on their part.
  • But celibacy is an “exceptional and rare calling” that most simply will not embrace.
  • Therefore we Christians should undertake a “normative reconsideration” of our sexual ethics.
  • Christians disagree about what is “the biblical” position on many things.
  • Taking the usual Bible passages each in turn, we can reread them in untraditional ways.
  • The story of Sodom in Genesis can be read as a tale of violent rape having nothing to do with loving same-sex relations.
  • Leviticus calls homosexual acts an abomination, but it describes many other acts that way too.
  • Who’s for a death penalty for sodomy? And also for a death penalty for every other “abomination” in Old Testament law?
  • Maybe this prohibition was just a way of setting Israel apart from other nearby cultures, or maybe it was just a male-domination thing.
  • Turning to the New Testament, the vocabulary of Paul is unclear, and homosexual acts in the ancient world were typically exploitative and violent, not loving.
  • And anyway Paul might mean (in Romans) those who can resist their attraction to others of the same sex, not those who cannot.
  • The male-female frame of biblical sexuality is just, after all, a cultural artifact, and our culture is different now.
  • What then should we do about the apparent (but maybe not real) conflicts between the biblical text and the “stubborn facts” we now know (but were not known in ancient days) from experience and science?
  • We should reconcile ourselves to living in a “Genesis 3” world, in which all are fallen, whereas the old morality unreasonably demanded a prelapsarian “Genesis 1-2” world we don’t live in.
  • But a merely consensual ethic won’t do, so we should insist on a covenantal sexual ethic for gay couples as for everyone else, i.e., same-sex marriage and/or church-recognized unions.

As readers can see, Gushee takes every step in his argument with a bias toward viewing same-sex attraction as natural and irresistible for those who experience it, toward viewing same-sex relationships as behaviorally and morally indistinguishable from a healthy marriage between a man and a woman, and toward viewing the divinely inspired authors of scripture as completely ignorant of these “stubborn facts.” He concludes that their biblical morality was therefore concerned only with the violent, exploitative homosexual conduct they knew about, which was all they knew about.

I said above that Gushee’s first problem is a bad anthropology, and one sees it here. If healthy, natural same-sex relationships are a normal part of the human experience today, it stands to reason they would have been so in antiquity as well. But the Bible contains not a single affirming portrait of a rightly ordered same-sex erotic relationship. And Gushee is far too certain—more than even the boilerplate statements of the modern psychological establishment can justify—that same-sex attraction, in a determinate proportion of the population, is both fixed and irresistible. Tell that to Rosaria Butterfield, Wesley Hill, Doug Mainwaring, Robert Oscar Lopez, Eve Tushnet, or the men and women in the Catholic documentary “The Desire of the Everlasting Hills.” All their experiences differ, but each of them has managed to come out of the homosexual life and live in faith and sexual integrity with the help of their families and friends.

Gushee’s shallow theology is evident in his textual exegesis, which claims historical-linguistic warrant that real experts such as Robert Gagnon have challenged and debunked, but which also seems strangely free-floating and ahistorical in its detachment from the life of the early church and the revolution it effected in ancient Mediterranean society. As the classical scholar Kyle Harper has shown in his book From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, the early church followed the lead of Paul in “radical opposition to all same-sex intercourse,” with an “unambiguous . . . blanket condemnation of same-sex love.” “For Paul,” Harper writes, “same-sex attraction symbolized the estrangement of men and women, at the very level of their inmost desires, from the creator.” The Christian revolution in sexual morality was bound up with its radical teaching on free will, an “acute concern with volition” that delivered a “liberating message of freedom” from sin. “The protean energy of human desire resisted being corralled, but marriage, inexorably, became the only legitimate venue of erotic fulfillment.” For David Gushee to argue as he does that Paul and the early church simply failed to grasp ennobling erotic possibilities known to us today is to engage in the worst form of presentism, and condescending to the man whom the Lord knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus.

I said as well that Gushee’s ethics are uncharitable, and that conclusion is hard to resist after seeing his offer of a “Genesis 3” approach to the problem of sin. We all have our own crosses to bear, of temptations, passions, and bad habit. But when Gushee suggests in his column series that “in Genesis 3 perspective no one’s sexuality is innocent” (his italics), that “everyone’s sexuality is broken in ways known quite well to each of us in our own hearts,” and that “everyone’s sexuality needs to be morally disciplined and ordered,” he seems really to be saying that we must not only accept that we are sinful, but accept our sins themselves. Shrug off that cross and be the sinning creature that God made you. What is “morally disciplined and ordered” about that? It is a descent into incoherence and bad counsel. Sinners and their sins may come in packages, but the struggle to live in faith means exchanging the burden of sin for the burden of the Cross, praying for the grace to accept the weight of joy promised in the exchange. Gushee seems to dispense with the latter by telling us the former can be rationalized away. I find it hard to see the Christian love for brothers and sisters in that.

But Gushee is certainly full of high self-love. In his own eyes he is a brave heir to Bonhoeffer’s legacy, prepared to lose friendships among the hopelessly retrogade, the bitter clingers to the teachings of Jesus and his apostles as the church has always understood them. The dark fate that awaits the courageous David Gushee consists of major newspaper features, interviews with celebrity journalists, acclaim from his academic peers, and book-signing parties in our best progressive bookstores across the country. My, what a martyrdom.


Matthew J. Franck
Matthew J. Franck is Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.