In this final installment of the review we’re going to turn to the title of Brown’s book, “Can you be Gay and Christian?” For many people, this is the most important question. After all, the debates will go on regardless. Christians debate a dizzying range of ethical issues: abortion, ARTs, war and pacifism, capital punishment, the right to bear arms, and so on. However, we generally recognize that these various issues, while important, are not matters that we divide over. You can be a Christian and affirm IVF and you can be a Christian and dissent from IVF, or just war, or capital punishment.
Is homosexuality like this? Is it an ethically important matter on which Christians can disagree in good conscience?
The astute reader will be tipped off to Brown’s own view early on with his careful use of scare quotes every time he refers to “gay Christians” or “gay Christianity”. If those scare quotes are too cryptic, he provides the explicit answer to this pivotal question in the book’s final chapter:
“So we return to the basic question of this book. Can you be gay and Christian? If by that you mean, can you be committed to Jesus and serve Him faithfully while still having homosexual attractions–recognizing those attractions as contrary to God’s design and resisting them as sinful–then the answer is yes, of course! You would join the ranks of some very committed, sensitive, devoted disciples of the past and present. […]
“On the other hand, if by being gay and Christian you mean, can you be committed to Jesus and serve Him while practicing homosexuality–embracing your homosexual attractions as a gift from God and acting on them, thereby affirming your ‘gay’ identity–then the answer is absolutely not. The Word of God is clearly against it.” (213)
These are strong words. But can Brown defend this position?
In part 3 of this review I argued that Brown does not succeed in establishing that homosexuality and Christianity are incompatible. What he does establish (at least to my satisfaction) is that whenever the Bible addresses homosexual conduct, it is always in negative and prohibitive terms. However, he doesn’t succeed in showing that what I call the Weak Harmony Thesis (WHT) is false. (According to the WHT, biblical prohibitions are contingent upon an understanding of homosexuality that is fundamentally different from the contemporary understanding of an innate and unalterable disposition expressed in a committed monogamous partnership of equals. Consequently, biblical prohibitions may not apply to this contemporary understanding.)
Back in part 3 I laid out the problem: the Bible contains much teaching that people today consider “suboptimal” (i.e. unwise or unjust), including legislative directions for punitively amputating limbs and pelting rebellious children to death with rocks. If we recognize teaching of this sort is suboptimal, a reflection of the limitations of the ANE worldview in which these directives were first composed, is it possible that there are other places where biblical legislative directions and prohibitions likewise reflect the limitations of the age? And if so, then could homosexual prohibitions be a further example that warrant nuanced reading in the same way we read directives to amputate limbs and stone children?
Let me give you a concrete example that succinctly presents Brown’s problem. On page 87 he cites a popular YouTube video that summarizes eight different biblical models for marriage. (You can see a version of the chart by clicking here.) The first model is the familiar “Man+Woman” of the “Nuclear Family”. So far, so good, right?
Alas, after that point things quickly go sideways, at least relative to the mores of the contemporary “pro-family” evangelical. Consider, for example, type 4:
“Rapist+His Victim (Deut. 22:28-29).
Virgin who is raped must marry her rapist
Rapist must pay victims [sic] father fifty shekels of silver for property loss.”
Or consider type 6:
“Soldier+Prisoner of War Num. 31:1-18, Deut. 21:11-14
Under Moses’ command Israelites kill every Midianite man, woman and child; save for the virgin girls who were taken as spoils of war
Wives must submit sexually to their new husbands.
If you find these legislative directives shocking, just wait until you read Brown’s analysis. This is the lesson he draws:
“Of course, many of these relationships were far from God’s ideal, but the irony of this illustration is simple: all those relationships are heterosexual!” (87)
This seems to me to represent a particularly bald case of confirmation bias. Brown analyzes data with the intent of demonstrating that the Bible is a heterosexual book (a point I readily grant). As a result, the only insight he draws from these shocking legislative examples is that they all assume heterosexuality, which is precisely the bit that is supportive of his thesis. However, Brown gives no acknowledgement that the directives contained therein are in any way suboptimal, that is apart from his staggering understatement that they are “far from God’s ideal”.
In order to appreciate just how divergent these directives are from contemporary moral understanding (and thus how far the contemporary reader is likely to find them from God’s ideal), consider parallel cases presented in our contemporary context. In recent years there have been several examples of victims of rape being forced to marry their rapists in Afghanistan. (For recent examples of this practice in Afghanistan, see here.) And as for instances of girls and young women being seized as war brides, consider the infamous case of the Muslim group Boko Haram kidnapping and then marrying off the school girls of Chibok in Nigeria to Muslim men. (For more on this well known case see here.) I hope these cases leave you indignant with moral outrage.
Far from God’s ideal, indeed. The only thing more shocking than the legislation itself is Brown’s response that all these directives assume heterosexuality. Talk about the selective appropriation of evidence! Surely Brown would be outraged at these practices in contemporary Afghanistan and Nigeria. So why not when it is recorded in the Bible? And why doesn’t he explore the consequences this might have for his reasoning from ancient ANE legislative directives to culturally-transcendent principles?
To be sure, the legislation to marry-one’s-rapist in the ANE can be construed as favorable for the woman in the sense that it provides economic security for a person who has otherwise become hopelessly damaged goods in a brutal patriarchal society. But think about that for a moment. The legislation is presented against the backdrop of an ANE society that is so brutal for women that a legislative directive for rapists to marry their victims could be considered favorable for the woman.
If we want to take this line of reasoning then it would follow that if conditions in contemporary Afghanistan are sufficiently brutal and misogynistic (in parallel with the ANE), then the current practice of victims marrying their rapists could, all things considered likewise be considered just and wise within the context of contemporary Afghanistan. But really, who wants to go down that trail?
With that in mind, let me turn finally to consider Brown’s treatment of another knotty issue: divorce and remarriage. The reason is because this topic links up closely with the status of gays as Christians. The problem here is that Jesus appears to have taught in no uncertain terms that those who divorce for any reason but marital unfaithfulness and then who remarry thereby commit adultery (Matthew 19:9). Given that divorce and remarriage is relatively common among evangelical Christians, the retort by many gay Christians is that the evangelicals ought to get their own house in order before pointing any fingers.
To his credit, Brown does address this problem of moral consistency. Sort of. This is what he says:
“What about the charge that many Christians have been guilty of hypocrisy, downplaying or ignoring the strong teachings of Jesus about divorce and remarriage, and yet making a big deal about homosexuality? Those charges are true, and I have said the same thing many times myself.” (144)
And so, Brown concludes that both practicing homosexuality and divorce and remarriage are “terribly wrong–with tragic consequences for the family and society as a whole–and both must be renounced.” (145)
Fair enough. Except for one important detail. While Brown morally censures both gay Christians and divorced and remarried Christians, he denies that you can be gay and Christian but he never denies you can be divorced-remarried and Christian. This strikes me as deeply inconsistent. It would seem that if “gay Christians” are not real Christians, then neither are those who have been divorced and remarried.
A foolish consistency, it has been said, is the hobgoblin of little minds. That may be. But moral consistency in your basic ethical argument is essential for credible ethical analysis. In that regard, at least, Brown still has some important work to do.