Questions about same-sex relationships are among the most pressing ethical issues facing the church today. While there has been much written on the topic, Karen Keen’s recent book Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships is a provocative contribution to the discussion.[i] I want to engage various arguments Karen lays out in her book and do so in a thorough manner. I typically don’t write such lengthy reviews, but Karen’s work raises many important questions about how Christians should think through marriage and sexual ethics. The length of my review is a reflection of the book’s depth and importance.
Despite several questions and critiques I have about the book, I want to begin by highlighting some positive aspects of it.
Positive Aspects of the Book
First, Karen’s tone is better than most books on the topic—affirming and traditional. When she evaluates the arguments from both sides of the debate, she doesn’t strawman the view she ultimately disagrees with (see e.g. pp. 25-41), though her summary of the traditional view (or historically Christian) view is underdeveloped. Throughout the book, Karen is quite happy to critique traditionalists and progressives—even though she ultimately affirms same-sex marriage in the church.
Second, when Karen describes both views, she does so in a cool, level-headed, non-hostile sort of way. The first three chapters in particular feel like they were written by an objective journalist who doesn’t have a dog in the fight.
Third, Karen does a good job identifying the main crux of the debate: the definition of marriage. While many writers focus almost entirely on the so-called prohibition passages (Lev 18:22; 20:13; Rom 1:26-27; etc.), Karen rightly says: “The crux of the current debate is gender and anatomical complementarity” (p. 25). I have some problems with how Karen frames this question,[ii] but she rightly grounds the discussion in fundamental questions about marriage rather than simply dealing with the prohibition passages.
There are several other positive things I could say about the book,[iii] but for the sake of space, I want to turn my attention to some more problematic portions of her argument. Just to be clear, I have a lot of respect for Karen and I admire her obvious intelligence, honesty, thoughtfulness, and love for people. As one scholar to another, I want to focus on the logic, exegesis, and ethical validity of her arguments.
Are the Historically Christian and Progressive Views at a Stalemate?
Karen sums up the current state of the debate in the first three chapters of the book. Chapter 3 is particularly important: here, she summarizes various arguments for each view, the traditional view of marriage (pp. 26-30) and the progressive view of marriage (pp. 30-40). And then she concludes:
This is where the two sides of the debate tend to stalemate. To help the conversation forward, I will focus the rest of this book on additional arguments that are currently being overlooked (p. 43).
The “additional arguments” Karen will focus on are propped up by the assumption that previous arguments truly are at a stalemate. I think this assumption weakens her overarching case for same-sex marriage. Here’s why.
Karen summarizes a few traditional arguments without actually refuting them, and her summary of the traditional view isn’t as thorough as it needs to be. Instead, she relies on her summary of various progressive arguments to cancel out various traditional arguments, bringing us to the stalemate. For example, the first traditional argument she summarizes is this:
“Heterosexual marriage is a creation ordinance and, therefore, not culturally relative” (pp. 26-27).
Karen never refutes this argument. Instead, she relies on the following counterargument from progressives to bring us to her much needed stalemate:
“Covenant fidelity, not sex differentiation, is the foundation of biblical marriage” (pp. 30-33).
The importance of this argument cannot be overstated. Karen’s later arguments for same-sex marriage can only work if she can prove this foundational argument to be true, that “covenant fidelity” and “not sex differentiation, is the foundation of biblical marriage.”
But this is a false dichotomy. Two things can be true at the same time: (1) covenant fidelity is a foundation of marriage and (2) sex difference is also a foundation of marriage. Simply showing that covenant fidelity is an important part of marriage does not thereby show that sex difference is not part of what marriage is. Covenant fidelity doesn’t nullify sex-difference. One must show that sex-difference never was, or is no longer, part of what marriage is.
Does Karen show that sex difference isn’t part of what marriage is? She tries to, but her arguments lack logical control and exegetical support. She rightly says that “Genesis 2 is a key text” (p. 30) along with Matthew 19 (cf. Mark 10). But she doesn’t offer evidence that either passage downplays or does away with sex difference when it talks about marriage. Karen rightly notes that Adam rejoices over Eve because she was a fellow human and equal to him: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” (Gen 2:23a). This highlights Eve’s similarity to Adam. But Adam goes on to say (something unmentioned by Karen):
she shall be called woman,
for she was taken out of man (Gen 2:23b)
This second half of Genesis 2:23 highlights sex difference. Genesis 2 is not about Eve’s similarity and not her sex difference, but about both her similarity and her difference. The author goes on to directly connect such similarity and difference to the structure of marriage in the very next verse:
For this reason a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh (Gen 2:24).
The logical connection, “For this reason,” gathers Adam and Eve’s similarity (common humanity) and difference (male and female) and builds them into the meaning of marriage in Genesis 2:24. The two that will become “one flesh” are precisely two sexually different persons, not just two humans regardless of sex difference.
Karen rightly shows that Genesis 2 emphasizes Eve’s equality to Adam, but she hasn’t shown that Genesis doesn’t also emphasize Eve’s sexual difference. Equality doesn’t nullify difference.
Karen then argues that Jesus in Matthew 19 focuses on “God creating human beings as a pair but his argument does not focus on sexual differentiation” (p. 31). Here’s what Matthew 19:4-5 says:
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ (quoting Gen 1:27) and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ (quoting Gen 2:24)?
Again, Karen raises a false dichotomy here. Jesus could be talking about both a human pair and sex difference between that pair. When Jesus quotes Genesis 1:27, that God “made them male and female,” he’s talking about a pair of humans that are sexually different. But Karen argues that “Jesus is expounding a case for the permanence of marriage, not for male-female marriage, which the Pharisees would not have questioned” (p. 32 emphasis mine). But just because the Pharisees didn’t question male-female marriage doesn’t therefore mean that Jesus didn’t believe in male-female marriage. There are loads of things that both Jesus and the Pharisees both believed in. Again, two things can be true at the same time: Jesus cites Genesis 1:27 to show that marriage is an inseparable union between a pair of humans and the pair of humans must also be male and female. The Pharisees, of course, believe this latter part, that sex difference is part of what marriage is, and it’s this shared belief that allows Jesus to make his point about fidelity. But—it’s still a shared belief.
Exegetically, logically, and historically, “the two” that “will become one flesh” are not just two humans; “the two” are precisely two sexually different humans—the “male and female” of Genesis 1:27.
In short, Karen does not offer compelling evidence against the main argument for the historically Christian view of marriage, that sex difference is a part of what marriage is. Karen might say that this wasn’t her main concern. She was simply laying out both sides of the debate. And yet her later arguments only work if she can prove that sex difference is not part of what marriage is, or, at the very last, that the two sides (traditional and progressive) are at a stalemate. I don’t believe she’s shown either to be true.
There’s another argument for the historically Christian view of marriage that I don’t think Karen accurately represents let alone refutes. On a few occasions, Karen assumes that “Both sides—traditionalist and progressive—agree that the biblical authors opposed same-sex relations, in part, for exploitative reasons” (p. 40). Earlier, she said, “traditionalists and progressives largely agree on why the biblical authors condemned same-sex intercourse (at least for men)” (p. 25). In a different context, Karen argues: “Common Greco-Roman and Jewish reasons for rejecting same-sex activity included lack of procreative potential, violation of gender norms, and perceptions of unrestrained lust. Paul rejected same-sex intercourse within this cultural context” (p. 23).
It’s not totally clear what Karen actually believes about the biblical prohibition passages. Did Paul condemn same sex relationships because they were exploitative? Or because they violated cultural gender norms, or biblical gender norms? Or because they couldn’t procreate? Or because they were characterized by unrestrained lust? All of the above? Some of the above? These are important questions that aren’t clearly answered. The one thing that is clear is that Karen assumes that traditionalists and progressives are pretty much on the same page about the prohibition passages and that this has led to a stalemate between the two views.
But this isn’t true. Traditionalists and progressives are not on the same page about the meaning and interpretation of the prohibition passages. While most progressives say that the prohibition passages don’t apply to modern day, consensual, same-sex relationships between adults, the historically Christian view says that they do apply. Here are a few reasons why:
- The language of the prohibition passages is unqualified; there is no mention of masters and slaves, older men and younger boys, prostitution, rape, or power differentials.
- Historically, we have evidence of adult, consensual, same-sex relationships. We cannot assume, historically speaking, that the biblical prohibitions were only focused on exploitative relationships.[iv]
- The prohibition passages use language of mutuality and consent, not exploitation or coercion.[v] There’s nothing in the actual language of the prohibitions that prevent us from applying them to all types of same-sex sexual relationships, including adult consenting ones.
There’s little (or no) evidence that the biblical prohibitions themselves should be limited to a particular kind of same-sex relationship. In fact, several affirming scholars, like Bill Loader and the late Louis Crompton, agree with this claim.[vi] Most scholars who hold to a historically Christian view show that the prohibitions apply to all kinds of same-sex sexual relations (consensual or non-consensual) and that the moral logic that drives the prohibitions is about violating God’s design and intention for sexual expression, which belongs in the context of marriage (i.e. the lifelong union between two sexually different people). Affirming and traditional perspectives on the prohibitions are not the same.
Now, I applaud Karen for rightly situating Paul in his cultural context (pp. 16-24). My primary concern, though, is that Karen views Paul as simply a product of his cultural environment, that Paul’s moral logic driving the prohibitions reflects that of his Jewish and Greco-Roman contemporaries.
This assumption falls apart once we recognize that Paul was just as much a critic of his cultural environment as he was a product of it. This is an important point often missed by affirming writers, and one that is missed by Karen Keen in her argument. Put simply, we cannot assume that the moral logic driving Paul’s critique of same-sex sexual relationships is the same as his Greco-Roman environment.
For instance, classicist Kyle Harper shows that the moral logic driving the New Testament’s (esp. Paul’s) sexual ethic was quite unique among Greco-Roman sources. Unlike his contemporaries, Paul’s moral logic wasn’t shaped by male superiority or power differentials; instead, Paul’s moral logic is governed by the fundamental creational categories of male and female. Harper writes:
[Paul’s] very language of “males” and “females” stood apart from the prevailing idiom of “men” and “boys,” “women” and “slaves.” By reducing the sex act down to the most basic constituents of male and female, Paul was able to redescribe the sexual culture surrounding him in transformative terms (From Shame to Sin, p. 95).
Paul’s moral logic in condemning same-sex relationships was different from, not simply a product of, his Greco-Roman environment. “What is significant about early Christian moralizing, from Paul onward, is that it drew so little from established modes of criticism,” writes Harper (ibid., p. 99). Christianity’s moral logic simply does not mirror the moral logic of his environment. “From Paul onward, Christian sexual ideology collapsed all forms of same-sex contact, whether pederastic or companionate, into one category” (ibid., p. 99).
All that to say, it’s simply untrue that “traditionalists and progressives largely agree on why the biblical authors condemned same-sex intercourse (at least for men)” (p. 25). But Karen needs this to be true in order to create a “stalemate” between progressive and historically Christian perspectives on marriage and sexuality so that she can move on to her other arguments for affirming same-sex marriage.
The Primary Arguments
In any case, let’s move on to Karen’s primary arguments, which she unpacks from pages 43-100 (and summarizes on pp. 102-103). We’ll focus on the first two arguments, which are closely connected (the first one sets up the second one). Then we’ll explore her third argument about the realistic possibility of lifelong celibacy. I’m not going to address her forth argument about the biological nature of same-sex orientation, primarily for the sake of space. (And I also find her fourth argument the least relevant for constructing a Christian ethic where sex difference is irrelevant for marriage.) Perhaps Karen and I can wrestle with this question in what will likely be an ensuing dialogue.
Here’s Karen’s first argument:
1. Proper interpretation of Scripture requires recognizing the overarching intent of biblical mandates, namely, a good and just world.
For example, Old Testament laws about “holding a rapist accountable and protecting the victim looked different than it does in the church” (p. 102, cf. 43-52). In the Old Testament, a rapist was forced to marry the person he raped, while we would never require a victim of rape to marry their rapist today. But, Karen rightly says, when we look at the intent of the Old Testament command, we see that the law actually had the best interest of the victim in view, in light of various cultural phenomena (e.g. Israelite culture was agrarian and patriarchal).
The particular form of the law (a rapist marrying his victim) can be discarded, while the intention of the law (taking care of the victim) should be maintained.
Karen doesn’t draw a straight line from this argument to affirming same-sex relationships; rather, she uses it to set up the way Jesus approaches ethics: “Jesus didn’t dismiss the Old Testament statutes as irrelevant. Rather, he saw past the cultural trappings to affirming the overarching intent and purpose of the laws” (p. 52). This brings us to Karen’s second argument.
2. Scripture itself teaches us that biblical mandates, including creation ordinances, cannot be applied without a deliberative process.
“To flatly apply law across the board without discernment for individual cases is a misuse of Scripture” (p. 201), writes Karen. The biblical authors themselves “demonstrate that even laws that prohibit something cannot be blindly applied,” but should be evaluated “on a case-by-case basis” (p. 201). And one of the things we should consider in this deliberative process “is attention to human need” (p. 201).
Karen then draws attention to two classic examples of this interpretive method: Jesus and Paul’s response to divorce (pp. 61-63), and Jesus’ interaction with the Sabbath command (pp. 64-66).
With divorce, we see some statements where divorce is categorically ruled out (Mark 10:11-12) and others where there are some allowances (Matt 19:9; 1 Cor 7:12-15). We see something similar with the Sabbath command. Even though it’s one of the Ten-Commandments and is rooted in the creation account (Exod 20:10-11; 31:16-17; cf. Gen 2:1-3), Jesus shows us that “attention to need is necessary to rightly employ” the Sabbath command and other biblical laws (p. 64). Jesus “gives specific examples, such as helping an animal or a person who is suffering (Matt. 12:9013), or freeing a man who hasn’t walked in thirty-either years to finally pick up and carry his mat (John 5:5-9)” (p. 64). In short, when it comes to interpreting various biblical laws, “Jesus and the biblical authors applied humanitarian exceptions to the rule” (p. 102).
The Deliberative Process in Sexual Ethics
So far, Karen raises some interesting points and shows awareness of the complexities of biblical interpretation. However, I still question whether these first two arguments actually support her ethical conclusions regarding same-sex marriage in the church.
First, regarding divorce, we know there are tensions about whether divorce is ever permissible because the Bible reveals clear evidence of such tensions. Deuteronomy 24 is quite lenient on divorce. Ezra 9-10 even commands divorce. Malachi says “God hates divorce” (according to some translations). And, as Karen points out, the New Testament adds more diversity to the biblical perspective on divorce (Mark 10 = no; Matt 19:9 = it depends; 1 Cor 7 = it depends). The relevant question is: do we see similar tensions with same-sex sexual relations? The answer is no. Throughout the Bible:
- Sex difference is part of what marriage is (Gen 1:27; 2:23-24; Matt 19:4-5)
- Whenever same-sex sexual relations are mentioned, they are always prohibited (Lev 18:22; 20:13; Rom 1:26-27; 1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:9-10)
- Historically, we see evidence for all different kinds of same-sex relationships, including those between consenting adults.
- Sex difference in marriage and the sinfulness of same-sex sexual relations were unanimously affirmed by the Jewish world that birthed New Testament Christianity, and…
- …this has been the consensus of 2,000 years of global, multi-ethnic, multi-denominational strands of church history (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant).
While we have biblical evidence for diverse perspectives on divorce, the same can’t be said about same-sex sexual relationships.
Second, the same thing applies to how the Sabbath command is treated throughout Scripture. It’s clearly binding on Israel, though we have biblical evidence that it might not be binding on all New Testament believers (at least, not binding on Gentile believers). But the only reason why we might say this is because we have actual New Testament evidence to say this (Matt 12; Rom 14; Col 2).
Now, Karen rightly says, “Contrary to popular belief, Jesus did not do away with the Sabbath” (p. 65). But this seems to work against her own argument. Jesus’ point in Matthew 12 and John 5 is not that God told Israel one thing and Jesus told the church another, nor that there was some “intention of the law” that allowed people to not actually observe the Sabbath in order to fulfill some higher good or true intention of the law. Rather, Jesus’ point is that true observance of the Sabbath always included caring for human needs. Jesus wasn’t advocating for breaking the Sabbath, but for doing away with Pharisaic additions to the Sabbath.
How does this relate to the Old Testament ethic of marriage and sexual relations?
The Old Testament view of marriage is that:
- Sex difference is part of what marriage is, and
- Sexual relationships belong in the context of marriage, and therefore
- same-sex sexual relations are sinful
For Karen’s analogy to work, she needs to show that the actual true intention of the Old Testament marriage and sex ethic is that:
- Sex difference is not part of what marriage is, and
- Same-sex relationships could be marital, and therefore
- same-sex sexual relations are not sinful
I’m happy to let the readers make the call on whether you find this analogy compelling. From my vantage point, the Sabbath analogy isn’t able to accomplish the work it’s employed to do.
Third, Karen suggests that the purpose of biblical laws is to foster a “good and just world.” And this is true. Or, at least it’s partially true. There are other teloi or goals of Christian ethics that help us understand what this “good and just world” would look like. For instance, holiness (or being “set apart”) seems to be the goal of both Old Testament and New Testament ethics. “You shall be holy, for I am holy” is a consistent thread woven throughout the ethics of both testaments (Lev 19:2; 20:26; 1 Pet 1:16; cf. Matt 5:43-48). And a significant part of holiness is living a sexual life that’s set apart (holy) and in line with God’s order of creation, even—or especially—if it doesn’t resonate with our surrounding culture.[vii]
So we have to ask questions like: what kind of sexual behavior is part of the good and just world that God envisions? (We must answer this question from God’s perspective as it’s revealed in Scripture, not from our modern, western assumptions about what constitutes a good and just world.)What kind of sexual practices constitute holy living for the countercultural community of Jesus followers? Is sex difference no longer relevant for the institution of marriage in the good and just world that (the first-century Jewish) Jesus sought to create? Put simply, what kind of marriage and sex ethic does the New Testament promote, and does it include same-sex sexual relationships as part of what marriage is?
Karen draws upon virtue ethics (pp. 57-58) to serve her point: “If sin is defined as something that violates the fruit of the Spirit, how are loving, monogamous same-sex relationships sinful?” (p. 57). This is an interesting question, but one that is shaped by several logical and biblical problems. Can we reduce all sinful behavior to that which “violates the fruit of the Spirit?” I don’t think the Paul who wrote Romans 1 would say that as long as a sexual relationship (same sex or opposite sex) seemed to result in the fruit of the Spirit, it would therefore be deemed morally righteous in the eyes of God. I can think of all kinds of sexual relationships that from our vantage point could exude love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc. that shouldn’t be considered moral relationships.
Even if we did use the fruit of the Spirit to be an interpretive lens for determining whether something is morally good, we must view the list from a first-century Christian perspective:
The fruit of the Spirit is love (biblical agape love not 21st century, western assumptions about love), joy (which, biblically, involves suffering and hardship), peace, patience (waiting for the hope that’s promised you in the gospel, which doesn’t include the promise of a marital partner), kindness, goodness (defined by God), faithfulness (to God and his direction for holiness, including sexual holiness), gentleness, and self-control (which includes resisting our sexual desires that go against God’s intention as revealed in Scripture). (Gal 5:22-23)
Plus, if you look at the context, the “fruit of the Spirit” is set in contrast to the “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:19-21), which includes sexual immorality (Greek: porneia), which, in the first century Jewish-Christian context encompassed all the sexual prohibitions in Leviticus 18—including same-sex sexual relationships (Lev 18:22).[viii] Unless we rip Paul’s words out of his 1st century context, same-sex sexual relationships were by definition not a result of the Spirit’s sanctifying activity.
In short, the New Testament itself does not envision same-sex sexual relationships as a morally permissible part of the good and just world that it promotes.
To sum it up, there are continuities and discontinuities in the ethical trajectory of Scripture. For some laws, like eating shellfish, there’s clear discontinuity; the Bible moves from prohibition to permission. Other laws like divorce also show discontinuity but in the other direction—from permission (Deut 24) to much more prohibition. For other laws, there is much more continuity, like laws about caring for the poor, loving your neighbor as yourself, lying, cheating, stealing, etc.
We can’t just highlight a few laws that show clear signs of discontinuity in order to show that the same can be said of other ethical teachings. That’s not how we do Christian ethics. We can’t, for instance, say that there’s discontinuity in the dietary laws and therefore I don’t think we need to care for the poor anymore, even though the Old Testament says we should. We have to evaluate each ethical command on its own.
And when we evaluate the Scriptural trajectory on sex difference in marriage and whether same-sex relationships can be considered marriages, we find much evidence for continuity and little (or no) evidence for discontinuity. In fact, there’s remarkable continuity between the Old and New Testaments sexual ethics as a whole. If there is any discontinuity, the New Testament moves towards stricter expectations not more lenient ones.
This brings us to Karen’s third argument:
3. Evidence indicates that lifelong celibacy is not achievable for every person.
“Lifelong celibacy is beautiful and meaningful for those who have the grace and call for it. But it can lead to physical and emotional death for those who do not” (p. 71)
That is, Karen believes that marriage and sex are necessary for human flourishing for at least some people. If some people can’t get married, they might even commit suicide, as she shares on pages 70-71 of her book. The impossibility of going through life without having sex forms Karen’s third ethical argument for affirming same-sex marriage in the church.
I believe that Karen’s chapter on celibacy forms a very important pastoral argument. It’s just not an ethical one.
From a pastoral vantage point, Karen raises a very good point about how realistic lifelong celibacy given our cultural climate. And I would add to this: part of the difficulty has to do with our modern fascination with marriage and sex in the evangelical church. The evangelical church has—unintentionally or sometimes intentionally—adopted an idolatrous view of marriage and sex that has made it nearly impossible for single people, gay or straight, to survive. This is why I’m so thankful for the work of Kutter Calaway, Bridget Eileen, Barry Danylak, and others for drawing us back to a more New Testamentish, Jesus-centered, singleness-elevating perspective on marriage and sex—one that believes, with Jesus, that marriage and sex aren’t essential for human flourishing.
I’m also thankful for various voices in the church who have been pushing back against the truncated ethic that says “Just say no to gay sex…the end.” Simply pursuing a “vocation of ‘no’,” as Eve Tushnet puts it, is not a livable vocation. Humans can live without sex, but we cannot live without love and intimacy. And until the church understands the difference, we will continue to fail our gay or same-sex attracted (and all our single) brothers and sisters. Any church that calls people to live a countercultural sex life must also create a rich and intimate environment for all of God’s people to live as one intimate family with mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers—a spiritual family that constitutes the reward of following Jesus (Mark 10:29-30).
No one should live without love and intimacy.
Please hear me out, because I’m primarily speaking to straight, conservative, evangelicals—though my point applies to Karen’s argument—the gospel never comes with the promise that you will find a soul mate, get married, have lots of great marital sex, and live happily ever after with no more loneliness and unmet sexual desires. To suggest otherwise is to elevate a secular ideology of marriage, romance, and sex above the God’s blueprint for human flourishing revealed through the New Testament. The purity cultural of the 1990’s made this mistake. I fear that some affirming voices are replicating it.
Again, Karen’s third argument is an important pastoral point, but it’s not an ethical argument. At least, it’s not an ethical argument that Jesus or the New Testament would recognize. The New Testament never determines whether something is right or wrong based on whether that moral good seems possible, and the New Testament definitely does not say that marriage and sex are necessary for human flourishing. If the singleness of Jesus informs our understanding of human nature and the possibility of human flourishing, then we must conclude that finding some life-long partner in this flicker of human existence we call “life on earth” cannot be essential to flourishing as an image bearer of God.
Speaking of God, he’s almost completely left out of Karen’s suggestion that lifelong celibacy is impossible for most Christians. Leaving God out of ethical possibilities doesn’t seem to resonate very well with how the New Testament does ethics. Even with the Spirit, moral perfection is very unlikely for any Christian, not just celibate gay Christians. Simply calling all youth to never look at porn is probably going to yield a very low success rate, especially if we are looking for perfection. But this doesn’t mean that viewing porn is therefore a moral good to pursue.
Or as Karen points out, “evangelicals between ages eighteen to twenty-nine show rates of non-marital sex at 44-80 percent” and “an evaluation of Catholic priests indicates achieving lifelong celibacy is difficult even for those who actively choose it” (p. 74). She goes on to say: “People will have sex either within marriage or outside of it” (p. 74 emphasis original). Again, I can appreciate Karen’s realism about whether Christians will live perfectly pure sexual lives. But as an ethical argument, it simply doesn’t work. We don’t determine whether something is morally good based on percentages of self-proclaimed Christians who are observing it.[ix]
Karen does draw upon Paul’s advice that it’s better to marry than to burn with passion (1 Cor 7:9) in order to root her argument in Scripture. In other words, if celibacy is too hard, then we have biblical grounds to marry. Karen goes on to cite theologians throughout history who agree with Paul and therefore encourage people to marry. And she applies this to same-sex marriage for Christians who are attracted to the same sex.
But Karen’s point can’t be logically or ethically mapped onto Paul’s point, nor can Paul’s point be employed to galvanize hers. When Paul says it’s better to marry than to burn, he’s making a concession between two relationships he believes are morally good: sex in (male-female) marriage and celibacy in singleness. Paul isn’t at all saying that if a sexually pure life is too difficult then by all means pursue a relationship that best fits your innate sexual desire, since we all know you’re going to have sex anyway. Karen’s ethical logic falls apart when we view it through Paul’s own ethical lens (i.e. both celibacy and [male-female] marriage are morally permissible). Karen’s argument from 1 Cor 7 only works if she can show that same-sex sexual relationships are morally permissible.
In short, saying that celibacy is too hard for gay Christians and therefore sex-difference isn’t a necessary part of marriage is not an ethical argument nor is it logically sound. And it doesn’t resonate with the rhythm of how the New Testament approaches sexual ethics.
I know this is a terribly long review, and again, the length is a reflection of the importance and depth of Karen’s arguments. There are many more aspects of Karen’s book that I didn’t get to, some of which I would applaud, many of which I would question. I do have one more point I’d like to discuss, but I’ll add this as an addendum below since it’s not a fundamental part of her argument.
In short, I find Karen’s book to be an interesting contribution to the faith and sexuality conversation, and I appreciate how much thought and research went into it. The book also radiates compassion and authenticity, and it comes from the heart of someone who cannot just treat this topic as some distant issue to debate. All of this makes the book worth a read. But for various reasons, some of which were stated above, I don’t find her arguments to be a logically or ethically compelling.
Addendum: Do I Focus on Sexual Orientation Change Efforts?
I want to end with a rather minor point, but one that I want to briefly address since it involves what appears to be a misrepresentation of my work. In Karen’s discussion about sexual orientation change efforts, Karen refers to “traditionalists” who focus “on sexual orientation change and mixed orientation marriages before giving cursory attention to lifelong celibacy” (p. 71). She then cites “two recent books by traditionalists” to illustrate her point—one by Kevin DeYoung and, to my surprise, one by Preston Sprinkle (i.e. my book People to Be Loved). The way Karen represented my work sounded like she was talking about someone else. Did I really focus on sexual orientation change and give cursory attention to lifelong celibacy?
Here are the facts. I devoted 3 pages to sexual orientation change efforts, 2 pages to mixed orientation marriages, and 7 pages to lifelong celibacy. This doesn’t seem to support her notion that I gave “cursory attention to lifelong celibacy” (7 pages) while focusing “on sexual orientation change” (3 pages).
Karen also says that “Sprinkle carelessly quotes an anonymous friend who reports a 50 percent change rate for his clients” and then says “such a percentage is quite out of sync with actual studies” (p. 129). But here’s what I went on to say regarding my anonymous friend, which Karen never mentioned:
I never said I agree with my friend. Maybe he was lying. Maybe he was telling the truth. Maybe his clients will return to their homosexual desires after twenty years, I don’t know (People to Be Loved, p. 160).
I never said that I believed my friend who gave the 50 percent statistic. (And my friend was the one who asked to remain anonymous; I wasn’t being careless in my research. I was honoring another human’s request.). I really wish Karen had given the full context of my quote. As it stands, her summary makes it sound like I rely on anonymous quotes over actual research.
In any case, in Karen’s own discussion about sexual orientation change efforts, she relies upon a well-known longitudinal study by Mark Yarhouse and Stanton Jones. I was glad to see this, but I was also a bit confused, because—I cited, endorsed, and promoted the very same study in my book. Here’s what I said:
From what I’ve seen, I think that Mark Yarhouse takes the most fair-minded approach to sexual orientation change efforts. In fact, Mark and his former colleague Stanton Jones performed one of the most in-depth studies on the effectiveness of Exodus International. While some people say that change is unethical and destructive, and others say that change is quite probable if done the right way, Yarhouse says that change is possible, although radical change is rare.
Here’s how I summarize my thoughts on reparative therapy:
All in all, it’s very important to make sure that we don’t preach a gospel of heterosexuality, as if the good news of Jesus is that He can make you straight. Wholeness and salvation should not be equated with becoming straight, but becoming more like Jesus which is possible if a person remains totally attracted to the same sex from cradle to grave.
I must say that I agree with Karen’s discussion about reparative therapy. I found her approach very humble, balanced, cautious, and honest. Which is why I was confused that she set me up as some opponent to critique. Karen and I have many differences, but our view of sexual orientation change efforts is pretty much the same. I even cited the very same study that she uses to justify her view.
I’m not at all offended at the misrepresentation. If there’s one truism about publishing a book it’s that it will be misrepresented. Still, with topics as important (and volatile) as sex orientation change efforts and lifelong celibacy, it’s crucial that we accurately represent what others have actually said.
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A small group learning experience designed to help Christians engage in conversations about faith, gender, and sexuality.
[i] Karen has a Th.M from Duke University and serves as the founder of the Redwood Center for Spiritual Care & Education. She identifies as a lesbian, and she affirms same-sex marriage in the church. However, she lived most of her life believing in a traditional view of marriage and sexuality (i.e. that same-sex sexual relations are sin). Her book lays out the main reasons why she changed her view.
[ii] On some occasions, Karen rightly talks about sex difference more broadly: “Male and female are intentionally differentiated” (p. 26). But on other occasions, she seems to reduce sex difference to “anatomical complementarity” (e.g. pp. 27, 35), which, she defines in at least on one occasion as “the fittedness of the penis and the vagina” (p. 35). Or more fully: “the fixation on anatomical complementarity for marriage causes unnecessary suffering not only for gay and lesbian people but also for straight people who have injuries or other conditions affecting penis-vagina intercourse” (p. 35). While the presence of penises and vaginas are one aspect of sex difference, sex difference can’t be reduced to a body part. To reduce the category of “woman” to “having a vagina” works against the great progress we’ve made over the last 100 years in honoring and elevating women rather than just treating them as body parts.
[iii] For instance, Karen very wisely doesn’t collapse the diversity of LGBTQ+ experiences into a conversation about same-sex sexuality, but instead stays focused on same-sex relationships.
[iv] For historical evidence, see my paper: “Did Adult, Consensual Same-Sex Relations Exist in Bible Times?”
[v] For instance, Leviticus 20:13 condemns both partners of same-sex male sexual relationships. If one partner was a victim, he wouldn’t be condemned. The same is true of Romans 1:26-27, where Paul says that both partners “burned with passion for one another” and “received in themselves the due penalty for their error” (Rom 1:27). Again, both partners are condemned for sinful behavior, which wouldn’t be true if one were a victim of exploitation.
[vi] Bill Loader: “It is inconceivable that [Paul] would approve of any same-sex acts” and that Rom 1:26-27 “included, but [was] by no means limited to exploitative pederasty,” “sexual abuse of male slaves,” or “same-sex acts … performed within idolatrous ritual contexts” (The New Testament on Sexuality, 322, 325). Louis Crompton: “Some interpreters, seeking to mitigate Paul’s harshness, have read the passage [in Romans 1] as condemning not homosexuals generally but only heterosexual men and women who experimented with homosexuality. According to this interpretation, Paul’s words were not directed at ‘bona fide’ homosexuals in committed relationships. But such a reading, however well-intentioned, seems strained and unhistorical. Nowhere does Paul or any other Jewish writer of this period imply the least acceptance of same-sex relations under any circumstances. The idea that homosexuals might be redeemed by mutual devotion would have been wholly foreign to Paul or any Jew or early Christian” (Louis Crompton, Homosexuality and Civilization, 114).
[vii] Kyle Harper shows that this was a fundamental aspect of early Christian views of conversation. To become a Christian was to take on a very different—or holy—approach to sex and sexual relationships (From Shame to Sin).
[viii] I would include here sex during menstruation (Lev 18:19). At least, the burden of proof would rest on those who believe that the advent of Jesus nullifies this command.
[ix] At the very least, if Karen does want to promote this kind of ethical system, then I would only suggest that she does so consistently. If a suggested moral good seems too difficult, or if humans have really poor track record of living by this moral good, then we should be allowed live contrary to that moral good. If Karen wants to promote and live by this ethic, then I would applaud her for her consistency.