Book Review: UnClobber by Colby Martin

Book Review: UnClobber by Colby Martin
September 7, 2018

Colby Martin is a pastor and church planter in San Diego, CA, and he has written an engaging book on “Rethinking Our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality.” The book is half memoir and half Bible study, and it’s written in a light hearted and lively prose that makes the book very easy to read. As you might guess from the title and subtitle, Colby argues that the Bible’s prohibitions of same-sex sexual behavior don’t apply to modern, same-sex marriages.


The memoir portions of the book are captivating. Colby writes authentically about his wrestling with this topic, inviting the reader to feel like a close friend as he studies and rethinks what the Bible says about same-sex relationships. I was particularly attracted to Colby’s ecclesiology (see chapter 9 for a beautiful picture of what a church should be). His new church plant in San Diego sounds like a relationally authentic community where people can truly call each other “brother, sister, mother, father” (Mark 10:29-30) and mean it.


UnClobber is an easy to read book that you’ll find hard to put down. But when it comes to Colby’s biblical arguments for his view (i.e. that God affirms same-sex relationships), I found it even harder to be convinced by. The most jarring vacancy in his argument has to do with his understanding of marriage.


Colby makes the case that the Bible blesses, or at least does not prohibit, same-sex marriages. Yet, the most basic question about marriage is never raised, let alone addressed. As I read the book I was waiting for this foundational question to be raised and I was anticipating a thoughtful response to the question. And yet, to my surprise (Colby truly is a thoughtful writer, which is why I was so shocked) he managed to write an entire book without ever raising, let alone answering, the most basic question in this discussion. The question is: What is marriage?


We can debate the meaning of the “clobber passage” or debate whether same sex unions in Paul’s day were consensual. But all of this is secondary. Before we can discuss the relevance of Leviticus 18 or Romans 1 for same-sex marriages, we have to define and defend our understanding of what marriage even is. 

  • Is marriage the union between two consensual adults—who fall in love and are committed to each other?
  • Or, is marriage the covenant union between sexually different persons?


As I’ve shown in a previous post, the latter definition resonates most with Scripture. And, of course, this is how historic Christianity (and most societies on earth) has understood marriage. The former definition (marriage is between consensual adults regardless of sex difference) is a modern view held by some people living mostly in the West.


Colby’s argument assumes the first view, that sex difference is irrelevant for what marriage is. But he never defends this view. He doesn’t even seem to be aware that this basic question even exists. Even if the rest of his arguments in the book hold true (I don’t think they do), they stand firmly in mid-air without a foundation.


In any case, there are several other problems I had with the arguments in the book.


In several places, Colby adopts a “born that way” perspective on sexual orientation (pp. 70, 156-57, 169). “Today, we know that homosexuality is a sexual orientation from birth” (p. 130). But, as I’ve shown elsewhere, most scientists (conservative and progressive) who study sexual orientation have dispelled the myth that people are simply born with a same-sex sexual orientation. Scientific studies have shown us that sexual orientation is much more complex than simply being a by-product of biological fiat. Both nature and nurture play complex roles in shaping our sexual desires. Yet Colby often refers to our modern understanding of sexual orientation as if scientists are settled on some uniform understanding of sexual orientation (pp. 59, 70, 82, 88, 94, 130, 162, 164, 169).


Moreover, on at least a couple occasions, Colby doesn’t seem aware of the fact that similar perspectives on what we now call “sexual orientation” are well documented in the ancient world: “a person’s sexual orientation, and egalitarian same-sex relationships—simply did not exist in the ancient world” (p. 130). Again, in Paul’s Greco-Roman world, “there was no concept of a person’s sexual orientation” (p. 164). This unhistorical assumption compounds the fracture in Colby’s logic. His argument runs as follows: if the biblical writers knew what we now know about sexual orientation, that some people are “born that way,” then they wouldn’t have condemned same-sex sexual behavior. 


Factually, there are two problems with this claim. First, scientists are not at all settled on what sexual orientation is. It’s not as if this thing we call “sexual orientation” is on scientific par with the claim that “the earth is round and not flat.” It’s ethically irresponsible to punt to a (nebulous) theory of sexual orientation as some sort of trump card to justify sexual behavior.


Second, the ancients actually did have a category of sexual orientation, as several pro-LGBTQ historians have pointed out. Of course it wasn’t articulated with the same scientific precision as our modern understanding. But the belief that some people were born—or predetermined—to desire sexual relationships with the same sex was fully at home in the biblical world. (See, for instance, Aristotle, Eth. 1148b; Pseudo-Aristotelian, 4.26, cf. 879a36-880a5; Soranus, On Chronic Disorders, 4.9.134; 4.131, 132, 134.) Astrological texts in particular (which were incredibly popular in the late Greco-Roman world) often asserted that some people were born and therefore predetermined to desire same-sex relationships (see, for instance, Harper, From Shame to Sin, 59-61; Brooten, Love Between Women, 115-141). Colby Martin’s unhistorical assertion, that our modern understanding of same-sex sexual orientation was unparalleled in the ancient world is without evidence. I do wonder how much of his thesis would stand once this claim is corrected.


In two places, Colby refers to the traditional view of marriage as the “Western” view (pp. 69, 73). Actually, the opposite is true. Modern Westerners (mostly white, elite, Westerners) are the ones who believe that sex difference is irrelevant for marriage. It’s the global, majority world, non-western countries that still embrace (on the whole) the so-called traditional view, that sex difference is part of what marriage is.


On at least a couple of occasions, Colby argues that adult, consensual, same-sex relationships didn’t exist in Biblical times (pp. 130, 164). This is historically untrue, as even several affirming scholars like Bill Loader and Louis Crompton have pointed out. (For documentation, see my paper: “Did Adult, Consensual Same-Sex Relationships Exist in Biblical Times?”)


In a few places, Colby rightly argues that we should have a humble hermeneutic, that we should be cautious about asserting overly confident claims about what the Bible means (pp. 26, 158). But then in other places, he goes against his own advice and confidently declares what the Bible means. For instance, Colby very cautiously and humbly says that “there are ways of understanding these six passages…that offer alternative understandings of the Bible’s view toward homosexuality and same-sex relationship than what the church has historically taught” (p. 26). Cautious. Humble. Suggestive. But then, in the very next paragraph, Colby asserts:


The Bible does not condemn those who are born with the biology of one gender, but identify as another. The Bible does not condemn any and all sex acts between the same sex…It’s time we stop saying that it does.”


What happened to simply offering an “alternative understanding?”


There are several things in Colby’s exegesis of the prohibition passages (Lev 18:22; 20:13; Rom 1:26-27; et al.) that I found to be incomplete and uncompelling.


For instance, Colby finds the Hebrew text of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 to contain “clunky Hebrew idioms—that we don’t fully understand—combined with the unexpected juxtaposition of nouns and the lack of prepositions connecting everything as we’d expect” (p. 88).  In one sense, any English speaker who doesn’t know Hebrew could say this about nearly every verse in the Old Testament, because, to state the obvious, the Hebrew language works differently than English. But for those who know both Hebrew and English—I’m not convinced that Colby knows the former—translating the verse isn’t too difficult. For instance, Colby stumbles over the phrase mishkeve ishah (“lyings of a woman”) and the use of the generic term ish (“man”) instead of zakar (“male”). Then, based on the supposed uncertainty of the Hebrew, Colby suggests that the verse refers to “a nuanced or situational prohibition, as opposed to an across-the-board law against any and all sex acts between men” (p. 86).


But the Hebrew isn’t at all hard to understand. It’s true that the exact phrase mishkeve ishah only appears here in the OT, but a parallel phrase mishkav zakar (“lying of a male”) occurs in Numbers (31:17-18, 35) and Judges (21:11-12) and it clearly refers to sexual intercourse. The use of ish (“man”) instead of the more gender-specific zakar (“male”) isn’t a major stumbling block since ish is flexible word capable of a wide range of meanings and nuances depending on the context. Here, it clearly means “man.”


Dr. Jay Sklar has a forthcoming, peer-reviewed article coming out in the Bulletin of Biblical Research on Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. At the very beginning of the article, Sklar writes: “There is no real debate that Lev 18:22 and 20:13 are prohibiting sexual relations between two men. This is agreed to by the commentators (whether they are conservative or liberal).” Sklar then cites 25 different scholars who all agree with this point. There’s nothing too difficult about the meaning of the Hebrew.


There is a debate, of course, about how to apply these verses to today; for example, if the prohibitions of Leviticus are only talking about cult prostitution, or whether the verses assume a moral logic that is intrinsically misogynistic and patriarchal. Colby’s argument would have been much more convincing had he focused on the moral assumptions lying behind the commands, or whether we can apply Leviticus 18 and 20 to today, rather than making it look like the Hebrew is ambiguous.


Colby’s approach to Romans 1 is even more problematic. He argues that Romans 1 “is part of a larger rhetorical device Paul used to lay a foundation for this argument that Jewish Christians were no better (or worse) than the Gentile Christians in Rome” (p. 119). Therefore, Colby argues, “we can no longer say with certainty” that the verses about same-sex behavior (Rom 1:26-27) “reflect Paul’s personal beliefs about same-sex sex acts” (p. 127).   


Any student of Romans knows that Colby is right about the first part, that Romans 1 is part of a rhetorical trap that Paul springs on his reader in Romans 2. Few scholars dispute this. But it’s quite a logical leap to then say that Paul might not have believed the stuff he said in Romans 1:26-27. It’s a false dichotomy to say that (1) Romans 1 is a rhetorical set up, and (2) therefore we don’t know if Paul believed what he said in Romans 1. Logically, both can be true at the same time: it’s a rhetorical set up and Paul also believed the content of what he said.


A quick look at Romans 1 shows that this has to be the case. Paul was setting a rhetorical trap and he believed the content of what he said in Romans 1. After all, there are a lot of other sins mentioned in Romans 1, like “evil, covetousness, and malice” (1:29). This too is part of the rhetorical set up. Does Paul therefore not believe these things are wrong? How about “envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness” (1:29)—are these things okay since they are listed as part of a rhetorical trap? “Gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless” (1:29-30) and on and on Paul goes. If Paul himself does not think same-sex sexual relations are wrong (1:26-27), then it’s literally the only thing in the entire section that Paul disagrees with. That’s a tough exegetical pill to swallow.


The fact is, Paul is a Jew and he has a Jewish sexual ethic. And, as a Jew, he’s trying to show that even the good, “moral” Jew is under God’s condemnation, since they are no better than the Gentiles (1:18-32). But Paul doesn’t have to ditch his Jewish sexual ethic to make the point.


Colby confidently says that Romans 1:26 is not talking about same-sex relations between women, but “most certainly was intended to mean anal heterosexual sex with men” (p. 132). Now, keep in mind that Paul says that women were the ones guilty of the act here. Now, think about the logic of this. Are we really to believe it was the women rather than the men who were the ones guilty of wanting anal sex? Do we have any historical evidence of women forcing men to have anal sex with them?


As you might expect, it’s pretty rare that actual scholars (Christian or non, affirming or traditional) try to make the claim that Romans 1:26 is referring to anything other than sex between women. James Miller tried to make the case against lesbian sex in 1:26, and a few people have followed his reading (e.g. Peter J. Tomson, Klaus Haacker says it’s talking about bestiality, James Brownson suggests this interpretation in passing but with little evidence). But numerous scholars have pointed out how flawed this reading is, and I’m not talking about traditional scholars here. (See, for instance, lesbian scholar Bernadette Brooten, Love Between Women, 248 n. 99 and affirming scholar Bill Loader, The New Testament on Sexuality, 310-11).Not only is the phrase “against nature” typically used of lesbian sex in the Greco-Romans world, but verse 27 (which is clearly about male same-sex intercourse) begins with the word “likewise,” which tells us that verse 26 is also about same-sex activity. And Colby’s assertion (which I think he borrowed from Achtemeier[i] or Brownson[ii] without looking it up for himself), that the church fathers “up through the fourth century” who commented on 1:26 did not think it was referring to female same-sex intercourse, is overstated at best. As Bernedette Brooten has shown, there are 2 church fathers (Augustine and Anastasius) who said the verse was talking about non-procreative heterosexual sex, while others like Clement of Alexandria and Chrysostom said it was talking about same-sex relationships.[iii]


Why is this significant? Because same-sex female relationships in the ancient world were between adults and they were consensual. In fact, several ancient writers (Clement of Alexandria, Ptolomy of Alexandria, Lucian of Samosata, and others) refer to female same-sex marriages. This is why some affirming writers try to say that perhaps Paul wasn’t talking about female same-sex relationships in Romans 1:26. If he was, then this would mean Paul probably did have adult consensual relationships in view. Which would make it tough to argue with historical credibility, as Colby tries to, that Paul does not have in mind “sex acts engaged within the context of mutuality and love” (p. 130).


There are a lot of things in the book that I agree with. I love—and very much resonate—with Colby’s concern about how LGBTQ people have been mistreated by people in the church, and how certain Bible verses have been “misused to label countless young boys and girls as unnatural, abnormal, and broken” (pp. 114-115). I agree with the ultimate premise of the book, that Christians have wrongly used a few verses to “clobber” gay people. And that’s something we need to repent from. But I don’t think that the solution to the problem is to assume a view of marriage that’s foreign to Scripture (that sex difference is irrelevant for what marriage is) and think that reinterpreting a few verses in the Bible will change the hearts of the ones most responsible for the harm. As Andy Marin has shown, most LGBT people who have left the church didn’t leave primarily for theological but relational reasons. I absolutely agree with Colby that we should treat our LGBTQ brothers and sisters in Christ with the upmost respect, love, admiration, and delight; that the church needs to repent from the relational harm it’s caused so many LGBT people who have grown up inside its walls or crossed its threshold; that we should reach out with love and care for the LGBTQ community outside the church.


And yes, we can do this while believing the historic, global, Christian view—that sex difference is part of what marriage is.    


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[i] The Bible’s “Yes” to Same-Sex Marriage, 97.

[ii] Bible, Gender, Sexuality, 207-8.

[iii] See Bernadette Brooten, “Patristic Interpretations of Romans 1:26.”