Robert Gagnon condemned the recent decision of a large evangelical congregation, City Church in San Francisco, to receive gay couples into membership without discrimination. In a recent article in the highly regarded journal, First Things, he also offered criticism of my book, A Letter to My Congregation.
Gagnon is considered the foremost traditionalist authority on the Bible and homosexual practice. It’s a bit intimidating to have one’s work challenged by an academic who has specialized in this issue. We speak from such different perspectives. Gagnon is an Associate Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary whose work has had a huge impact on the care of LGBT people in evangelical churches. I am a pastor of 35 years, forced to engage the scholarship of this complex and controversial topic in order to provide care for the gay and transgender people in my church.
The scholars have weighed in on this issue but it is now up to pastors to care for the growing number of sexual minorities coming out of hiding in our churches. We are informed by the work of the academics but we can’t outsource our care of gay people to them. The fact that it’s daunting to face the criticism of a New Testament scholar who has specialized in this topic doesn’t get me off the hook, especially since I have engaged the scholarship in writing, as I did in what began as a literal letter to my congregation.
With the help of my publisher, David Crumm Media, I’m able to revise the book at any time–one of the reasons for going with Crumm’s cutting edge publishing technology (that, and the fact that no evangelical house would touch it). I’ve been trying to weigh criticism non-defensively so I can revise the book when its been shown to be in error. I’m not foolish enough to think I’ve gotten everything right, especially given the complexities of the scholarship. For example, I’m trying to chase down a reference from a critic who said the evidence for homoerotic sexual practices in the temple prostitution of the New Testament era is sketchy.
Gagnon’s first First Things criticism
That said, I didn’t find anything in Gagnon’s First Things article to justify a revision. His critique boiled down to two assertions. First, “Wilson contends wrongly that the biblical indictment of homosexual practice is limited to exploitative relationships with adolescents, slaves, and temple prostitutes, as though these were the only forms of homosexual practice known to persons of the ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world.” In Letter, I did report that the dominant forms of same-sex activity known in the biblical period were temple prostitution, the sexual exploitation of slaves, and the sexual exploitation of young adolescent males by older “mentors” (pederasty). The latter two practices, in particular, were culturally normative in a way that is difficult for us moderns to appreciate.
Certainly, Paul’s language with respect to homoerotic activity in Romans 1, best fits these forms. Whether this text also refers to anything like today’s same-sex covenantal unions is arguably a disputable matter.
But, asserting a thing doesn’t make it so
Gagnon simply asserts that this cannot be so by ignoring contrary scholarship. He does this with a circular rhetorical move: “The best biblical scholars who have studied extensively the issue of homosexual practice, including advocates for homosexual unions (such as William Loader and Bernadette Brooten), know that the scriptural indictment of homosexual practice includes a rejection of committed homosexual unions.”
Thus, Gagnon dismisses or ignores (as irrelevant?) scholars of the period who are not also biblical scholars. But if the question is what forms of same-sex relationships were known to the period, their work seems particularly germane. Sarah Ruden apparently doesnt count because Ruden is a scholar of the Greco-Roman literature (a primary source for understanding the same-gender sex of the period) and not a “biblical scholar.”‘
Furthermore, in citing the perspective of liberal scholars Loader and Brooten that support his own view (even liberal scholars agree with me, says Gagnon) Gagnon fails to note that theirs is a minority perspective within their own community.
You get the gist: apparently, anyone who doesn’t agree with Gagnon’s scholarly opinion cannot by definition qualify as one of “the best biblical scholars.” I’m sorry, but with so much at stake, I don’t find that convincing. Failure to acknowledge legitimate academic debate doesn’t make it go away. Especially when the issue is whether Paul’s category, “disputable matters” applies.
In Letter, I noted that N.T. Wright, citing his authority as an historian no less, claims. like Gagnon, that the Greco-Roman culture of the New Testament period, would certainly have known of the equivalent of modern day same-sex covenantal relationships. He does so without offering compelling evidence, however. Wright cited Plato’s Symposium, written nearly 400 years before Romans, referring to relationships that began as an idealized or romanticized form of pederasty. Which seemed to me decidedly unlike the relationships of the Jesus-, Spirit-, Scripture-loving same-sex couples I care for. Wright, like Gagnon, doesn’t even acknowledge or provide evidence to contradict the views of scholars like Sarah Ruden, a classicist conversant in the Greco-Roman literature of the period. Ruden, whose Paul Among the People was acclaimed by Christianity Today no less, asserted, with considerable evidence, that the homo-erotic sex of the period was by modern standards debauched, exploitative, and often violent. She could find no evidence of anything equivalent to today’s same-sex covenantal unions. There is other reputable scholarly work to support this view, but this only seems to de facto disqualify it as “the best” scholarship for Gagnon.
So there we have it: the two most cited authorities (in the evangelical world) on the cultural context of Paul’s letter to the Romans, Wright and Gagnon, simply assert that their view is indisputable without actually even referring to, let alone, engaging the actual scholarly dispute that exists. Pastors, understandably, tend not to evaluate the scholarship of scholars. But in a something like this, in which everyone has a personal stake in the matter (because one’s view on the controversy can make or break careers) that’s not good enough. We answer to Jesus for our pastoral care of vulnerable people and not to the trusted authorities in our religious communities.
Gagnon’s second First Things criticism
Secondly, Gagnon missed my point about Romans 14 and “adiaphora” when he wrote, “For Wilson, homosexual practice is an adiaphoron, a ‘matter of indifference,’ over which Christians can and should agree to disagree. Yet Paul never relegated matters of sexual purity to the classification of adiaphora.”
But a matter of indifference it is not
Actually, I made the opposite point: that adiaphora was a category introduced by the stoics, not Paul. I said that Paul’s term “disputable matters” included first order moral concerns, like whether eating meat sacrificed to idols is to participate in idolatry, citing N.T. Wright and James Dunn to support this claim. I specifically argued against conflating the term, adiaphora, “matters of indifference,” with Paul’s “disputable matters.”
All of this might seem to the outside observer as so much academic quibbling. Which it might be were it not for the suffering of gay folk in faith communities that insist on Gagnon’s reading of Scripture as the only legitimate one.
In Letter, I objected to scholarship that doesn’t adequately engage the issues that I face every day as a pastor: the harm suffered by sexual and gender minorities in churches that practice the exclusionary practices that Gagnon so confidently advocates. When the scholars then offer their views on how the texts apply today, proposing or sometimes insisting on exclusionary practices that must be enforced by pastors, that’s just not good enough. Pastors and scholars and all followers of Jesus are bound by the clear, incontrovertible teaching of Scripture, introduced in Leviticus, reinforced in the prophets but blazing out in Jesus and the apostolic writings that says, in effect, “Pay attention to how your beliefs affect other people!”
The “Love-your-neighbor-as-yourself” test still applies
Why would Jesus say of love of God and love of neighbor as oneself: “this is the Law and the Prophets [that is, THIS IS THE BIBLE!]” unless they were corrective for the tendency of religious people to use their religion in harmful ways? Why would he drop the former to emphasize the latter in the golden rule, calling this the narrow road that leads to life? Why would Paul, who knew a thing or two about the power of religious zeal to harm others, insist that “Love does not harm the neighbor”? Why would James, in his diatribe against the religious impulse run amok, highlight love of neighbor as “the royal law”?
Why this distinctive emphasis in the Jesus movement unless Jesus and those jarred awake by his risen presence realized how powerful and perverse is the religious impulse to assert our readings of Scripture as the only possible correct readings, even in the face of evidence that these readings contribute to the harm done to vulnerable people?
All to say, I found Gagnon’s expertise in The Bible and Homosexual Practice inadequate precisely because he didn’t engage what Fred Harrell and the elders of City Church in San Francisco are now wrestling with. To hear Gagnon dismiss this process, undertaken as an act of discipleship, with trivializing and demeaning language like “the impersonation of love being now being peddled by City Church leadership”, is telling–and unacceptable.
All of us with any responsibility in the church, scholars, pastors, elder boards, congregants, would do well to consider the words of N.T. Wright: “The point of discourse is to learn with and from one another. I used to tell my students that at least 20 percent of what I was telling them was wrong, but I didn’t know which 20 percent it was; I make many mistakes in life, in relationships, and in work, and I don’t expect to be free of them in my thinking.” (Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, p. 20)
In the face of the suffering of so many gay and transgender brothers and sisters, we should all join the leaders of City Church in wondering whether our exclusionary practices aimed at these vulnerable people are part of the 20% we’ve been blind to for too long.