The biggest theological celebrity at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, New Testament professor Luke Timothy Johnson, supports overturning the unanimous verdict of two millennia’s worth of Christian reflection on the subject of homosexuality.
Does he do so because his scholarly research has shown him that St. Paul was referring only to non-consensual, exploitative, and idolatrous homosexual relationships? Or that Jesus’ “silence” on the subject was tacit approval? Or that, when it comes to condemning same-sex sexual relationships, most Christians are guilty of unprincipled picking-and-choosing?
Not at all.
In fact, Dr. Johnson, in a 2007 essay in Commonweal, agrees with people like me that the Bible condemns homosexual practice unambiguously. “The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says.”
In other words, Johnson says, the Bible got it wrong. Since “the Bible got it wrong” is the unchallenged presupposition of most theological and biblical education at my alma mater, Johnson’s position is hardly newsworthy. Since Johnson is relatively conservative, however, believing, for example, that Paul is the author even of the disputed Pauline letters and being an outspoken opponent of the “Jesus Seminar” movement, his affirmation of same-sex sexual behavior—at least for the reasons he gives—is surprising.
To his small credit, though, at least he doesn’t perform exegetical gymnastics to make the Bible say what it doesn’t say.
And writer Brandon Ambrosino also deserves some credit for making a similar point in his new article: Of course Jesus believed that homosexual practice was a sin!
Revisionist hermeneutics can seem pretty silly when we consider who Jesus was. Jesus, a first-century Jewish theologian, would almost certainly have held the traditional Jewish belief about same-sex relations—that is, he would have believed such sexual activity was sinful. Had Jesus departed significantly from Jewish tradition on this front, we can be sure that his disagreement would have been recorded (just like his reconsideration of divorce or his new interpretation of adultery). None of his biographers include a single instance of Jesus challenging the mainstream Jewish understanding of homosexuality, and Jesus more than once affirmed a male-female pattern of coupling as the proper domestic arrangement; it’s safe to conclude, then, that Christ would have agreed with the Levitical assessment of homosexuality as a sin. Any confusion about this seems motivated by contemporary politics, not ancient history.
Ambrosino is happy to concede, however, that Jesus is simply wrong, a product of his first-century Jewish culture and upbringing. This, he says, shouldn’t be a problem for us Christians—after all, as a “devout gay Christian who confesses both the divinity of Jesus and the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures,” he has no problem with it.
Nevertheless, in a Facebook post this week, Robert Gagnon, a New Testament professor at the mainline Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, puts the problem in sharp relief:
Contrary to what Ambrosino suggests, Jesus’ position on the male-female matrix for marriage was not an offhand comment or an undigested morsel of his first-century Jewish cultural environment. Nor did Jesus view the matter as ancillary to Christian faith. He treated this as part of the foundation of creation upon which all sexual ethics is based. He predicated on the God-intentioned duality and complementarity of the sexes a principle about number: There should be a duality of number in the sexual union matching the duality of the sexes required for that union. In other words, the twoness of the sexes in creation, obviously designed for sexual union, is a self-evident indication of the Creator’s will for the twoness of the sexual bond.
In my experience, I have yet to see one of my fellow UMC clergy who want to change our doctrine take seriously the implications of Jesus’ words about marriage in Matthew 19 and Mark 10. But few of them would say that Jesus is simply wrong.
But if he’s right, how many would be willing to revise their revisionism?