A Reformation the Church Doesn’t Need: Answering Revisionist Pro-Gay Theology—Part I
The scene was familiar: a church filled with joyful Christians, singing well-known hymns, praising God with arms outstretched, enjoying beautiful, bountiful fellowship with each other.
There was one significant difference, though, between this gathering and one you probably attend. All the participants were either homosexual or “gay affirming.” Plus, they’re on a mission to change your mind and your congregation’s theology about homosexuality.
It’s being called a new Reformation, but this is a reformation we do not need. These people are organized, serious, and single-minded—and you need to be ready for them, because and they are coming to your church.
The Reformation Project (TRP), founded by Matthew Vines, is one of a number of organizations1 in this movement hosting conferences around the country.2 Their mission: “We are dedicated to training LGBT3 Christians and their allies to reform church teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity through the teaching of the Bible.” 4
TRP’s statement of faith is standard Evangelical fare, including a commitment to “the inspiration of the Bible, the Word of God…the Triune God…[Jesus’] death for our sins, His resurrection and eventual return…and the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit.”
Their conferences engage all the relevant Scriptures and standard challenges to the gay-friendly view. Drawing from the writings of legitimate scholars, they teach the conferees hermeneutics and theology combined with tactically clever and rhetorically compelling talking points. Then they role-play the responses in a winsome and attractive way. It’s essentially a Stand to Reason for revisionist pro-gay theology.
TRP’s approach adds a clever twist, though. Vines knows that an appeal to Scripture alone will not convince today’s Christian. Believers also need a subjective prod.
To make his view most appealing, then, Vines wants to make sure every non-gay-affirming Christian has a pleasant encounter with a gay person, especially a “gay Christian”5—to overcome what might be called the “ick” factor—the discomfort many feel about homosexuality chiefly because they have no gay family or friends.
This personalized approach is powerful. It’s easy to stigmatize and demonize the unfamiliar. Even stalwart fundamentalists, though, frequently change their view once they discover, for example, a family member identifies as gay.6
“Not that Kind of Homosexuality”
The current revisionist approach seeks to simplify an apparently complex textual issue by making a single, uncomplicated point: The kind of same-sex behavior condemned in the Bible is not what modern-day LGBT Christians practice.
This is the “cultural distance argument,” the claim that ancient same-sex behavior was exploitive, abusive, and oppressive—completely unlike the caring, committed, covenantal unions promoted by gay Christians today. Scriptural prohibitions of homosexuality, then, apply only to the harsh and unjust practices, not to loyal, loving, same-sex intimacy.
Author Kevin DeYoung sums up the revisionist approach nicely in his recent critique:
The issue was not gender (whether the lovers were male or female), but gender roles (whether a man was overly feminized and acting like a woman). The issue was not men having sex with men, but men having sex with boys. The issue was not consensual same-sex sexual intimacy, but gang rape, power imbalances, and systemic oppression. The revisionist case can take many forms, but central to most of them is the “not that kind of homosexuality!” argument. We can safely set aside the scriptural prohibitions against homosexual behavior because we are comparing apples and oranges: we are talking in our day about committed, consensual, lifelong partnerships, something the biblical authors in their day knew nothing about.7
Thus, on this view the Bible does not prohibit homosexuality per se, only abusive forms of homosexuality like pederasty, master-slave exploitation, promiscuity, rape, victimization, etc.
We have two general responses to this claim before we address the biblical case directly.
First, this conclusion is based on a selective use of the historical evidence from ancient Near East culture. Examples of exploitive sexuality abound in the literature, to be sure. However, a variety of non-abusive homosexual practices show up in the record, too—including all of the “loving” variations we witness today (except, notably, “gay Christians”). There are even references to nascent notions of what we would now call “sexual orientation.”8
As it turns out then, in the ancient Near East “committed, consensual, lifelong partnerships” did exist, in addition to the exploitive forms. Why, then, presume the biblical texts merely forbid the second, but not the first? By what logic can biblical passages be said to inveigh only against the “abusive” practices and not homosexual conduct itself?
Second, Scripture nowhere makes this not-that-kind-of-homosexuality distinction. There’s not the slightest hint in any biblical passage that condemnation of homosexuality is based on—and therefore limited to—coercive or oppressive, same-sex activity. Instead, the Scripture consistently makes a different point, one emphasized with every passage in question. To see that point clearly, though, we need to go back to the beginning.
“From the Beginning…”
Two thousand years ago, Jesus of Nazareth based an argument about marriage on a simple observation about the created order: Humans are made male and female. They are gendered. When confronted with the revisionist teaching on marriage of His own day, Jesus said:
Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate. (Matt. 19:4-6)9
Jesus answered a question about divorce by going back to the beginning, to God’s original intention for marriage: one man, with one woman, becoming one flesh, for one lifetime. That was Jesus’ view.
Contrary to common assertion, then, Jesus did have something to say about homosexuality. From the beginning God had designed, intended, and endorsed marriage and sex (“one flesh”) solely for long term, monogamous, heterosexual unions. Indeed, gendered human bodies reflect that purpose: men and women designed to function together, to fit each other physically in a complementary way.
Simply put, the man was made for the woman and the woman was made for the man. Reject that function and replace it with another, and you reject God’s own good purpose for sex.
Sam Allberry, himself a Christian managing same-sex attraction, put it this way: “What was going on with Adam and Eve explains what has gone on ever since. The perfect ‘fit’ between the two of them is the foundation for every human marriage since. The account is not just about their union, but every marriage union.”10
Not surprisingly, then, the six sexual activities prohibited in the Bible—adultery, fornication, rape, incest, bestiality, and homosexuality—each involve sex with someone other than one’s spouse. This point deserves repeating: All forms of sex condemned in Scripture have a common characteristic: sex other than between a husband and his wife.
Jesus spelled out the natural, normal sexual/marital relationship with crystal clarity. Inside marriage, sex is sacred; outside marriage, it is defiled. God gives sexual freedom only to husbands with wives—not to friends or co-workers, not to casual dates, not to long-term sweethearts, and not to same-sex partners in any kind of relationship—exploitive and abusive, or loving and committed.
Man was made to function sexually with a woman, and a woman with a man, to accomplish a natural purpose—“be fruitful and multiply”—that could not be fulfilled in same-sex unions.11 This was God’s intention “from the beginning.” It was the way God wanted it. It is still the way it’s supposed to be. And this is the theme we find— explicit or implicit—with every passage condemning homosexuality: man abandoning the natural function of God’s purpose for sex.
It’s time now to look at those passages.
A Tale of Two Cities
TRP conference “Talking Point #6” characterizes the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah12 this way: “Sodom and Gomorrah involved a threatened gang rape, not…loving relationships based on mutuality and fidelity.” According to Ezekiel 16:49 (NIV), the cities’ residents “were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and the needy.” Jude’s reference in verse 7 to the men of Sodom and Gomorrah going after “different flesh”…“likely refers to the attempted rape of non-human beings, angels.”
On TRP’s take, then, homosexuality itself was not a problem, only sexual violence and social injustice. Are they right? Of course, the above explanations are not mutually exclusive and may have been factors in their own way. Here’s the key question, though: Does the biblical record indicate that homosexuality was a factor at all in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah?
Three observations make it clear that the revisionist approach is not an adequate explanation.
First, there was no rape, only an expressed intention that was not fulfilled. Thus, according to the revisionist view, God annihilated two entire cities in part because a gang of ruffians hoped to sexually assault two men they never actually touched. This seems odd. It’s hard to believe that merely attempting a crime—even one as despicable as rape—would bring annihilation. I think we can eliminate that option.
Second, Jude 7 says, “Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them…indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh” (sarkos heteras). Yes, sex with angels would be strange, but there is absolutely no indication the men of Sodom—or even Lot—knew the visitors were angels. Further, the strange-flesh sex was happening in neighboring cities as well. More angels? Doubtful. The “strange flesh” that appealed to the sexual appetites of the men of that region clearly was not angelic flesh. Eliminate that option, too.
Third, nothing that happened at Lot’s house that night could have been the reason God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—neither attempted gang rape, nor sex with angels, nor anything else that took place that evening. Why? Because God had sent the angels to visit judgment before those incidents ever happened: “We are about to destroy this place, because their outcry has become so great before the Lord that the Lord has sent us to destroy it” (Gen. 19:13).13
Something terrible had been going on for so long in the those two cities and beyond that God’s judgment was a fait accompli before the angels even arrived—meant as a vivid example of Divine wrath towards any people tempted to mimic their godless habits.14 What was this behavior? Both Peter and Jude tell us clearly.
Peter says Lot was “oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men,” and, “by what he saw and heard…felt his righteous soul tormented day after day with their lawless deeds” as they “indulged the flesh in its corrupt desires and despised authority.”15 Jude says that those who, in the entire region of Sodom and Gomorrah, “indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.”
The sin, therefore, was some kind of ongoing, sensuous behavior Lot saw and heard in which men, driven by corrupt desire contrary to right principle, rejected what was proper in order to pursue flesh that was odd, unusual, abnormal and “strange.” There is only one characteristic of Sodom’s assailants that fits this description: their homosexuality. Curiously, neither Peter nor Jude even hint at any other problem, meaning sexual sin eclipsed everything else.
The references to strange flesh, to the corruption of their sensuality, to actions contrary to right principle, and to a pursuit of fleshly appetites in a way not proper, all signal an abandonment of God’s expressed purpose for sex established in His original, created order emphasized by Jesus. In this, they despised His authority by exchanging the proper for the perverse, triggering the most severe judgment anywhere in biblical history outside of the flood.
Wait, revisionists interject. Ezekiel never mentions homosexuality. Correct, he doesn’t use that word. He uses another. Ezekiel says they “committed abominations before Me” (16:50), the very word used of homosexuality in our next passage.
“Old” vs. “New”
In “Talking Point #7,” TRP material states, “The prohibitions of Leviticus do not apply to Christians…. The New Testament teaches that Christ’s death and resurrection fulfilled the Law…which is why its many rules or regulations have never applied to Christians.”
Of course, both of these statements are true as far as they go. The New does supersede the Old, including a number of peculiar regulations that seem only for Jews during that unique era (constraints on mixing wool and linen together come to mind).16 But we have to be careful here.
Though the Mosaic Law has never applied to Christians the way it applied to Jews in the theocracy, it would be a serious mistake to conclude that none of the prohibitions in the Law have any moral relevance for believers today. Yes, Christ fulfilled the Law, but perversion is still perverse, and wickedness is still wrong, whether it be adultery, rape, incest, or bestiality—or any of a number of evil acts all condemned by Moses in the “old” Law.
Does the fact that “Christ is the end of the Law” liberate us now from every moral constraint? Of course not, and I know TRP would agree. That’s why their points about “New” vs. “Old” are irrelevant to our issue. The real question about homosexuality is this: Do the Mosaic prohibitions of same-sex behavior reflect temporal provisions for Jews in the theocracy, or do they reflect universal moral concerns for everyone? Let’s look at the passages in question:
Leviticus 18:20-23 “You shall not have intercourse with your neighbor’s wife, to be defiled with her. You shall not give any of your offspring to offer them to Molech….You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination. Also you shall not have intercourse with any animal to be defiled with it….it is a perversion.”
Leviticus 20:13 “If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death.”
Pay close attention to the context here. The “abomination” of homosexuality in Leviticus 18 is grouped with condemnation of adultery, child sacrifice, and bestiality. Keep reading and you’ll see that this grouping is no accident. These were the very behaviors that brought judgment on the Canaanites to begin with (18:24-26)— people who also were gentiles “not under the Law.” Nevertheless, this did not exonerate them. They still were “spewed out” for their wickedness.
Note also that the prohibition of homosexual behavior is unqualified—no exceptions for loving, consensual, committed relationships. And both participants were punished here (20:13)—unlike rape where only the abuser was penalized (Deut. 22:25-26)—so this passage couldn’t merely be prohibiting coercive, abusive sex.
Whenever a man lies with another man the way he should be lying with a woman, something is terribly wrong. He is exchanging the first for the second. He is rejecting the woman who was “fit” for him for a man who was not. Once again, the created order is subverted—God’s original purpose for sex is distorted and corrupted. The result: a “detestable act.”
The point of citing Leviticus on homosexuality, then, is not to impose Torah requirements on New Testament believers. Rather, it’s to show that any behavior twisting or maligning God’s original intention for sex is evil in any era.
This exact point is made with crystal clarity in our next passage on homosexuality—found in a New Testament epistle written to Christians under the new order.
In Romans 1, Paul seems to use homosexuality as indicative of man’s deep-seated rebellion against God resulting in unqualified condemnation. New interpretations cast a different light on the passage, though.
Under TRP’s “Talking Point #8” we find: “The same-sex behavior Paul condemns is characterized by lustfulness, disrespect, and selfishness, not love and commitment.”
This, to put it mildly, is pure invention. Even a cursory reading of the passage reveals that Paul is not discussing the conditions under which homosexuality is practiced, but the practice itself. This passage is worth quoting at length:
For since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible attributes—His eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
Therefore, God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper. (Rom. 1:20-28)
The same theme implicit in the earlier passages is explicit here. The Greek word kreesis, translated “function” in this text, is used only these two times in the New Testament, but is found frequently in other literature of the time. According to BAG, the standard Greek language lexicon, the word means “use…relations, function, especially of sexual intercourse.” 17
Paul is not talking about natural desires here; he is talking about natural functions. He’s talking about plumbing. He is not talking about what one wants sexually or the nature of the sexual relationship (abusive, exploitive, unloving, etc.), but how human beings are built to operate. Our bodies are intended by God to function in a specific way sexually. Men were not built to function sexually with men, but with women.
This point is unmistakable when one notes precisely what homosexual men abandon according to verse 27. Paul says the error of homosexuality is man forsaking the “natural function of the woman.” He abandons the female built by God to be man’s sexual complement. He rejects the sexual companion God designed for him. Thus, he abandons God.
Natural desires go with natural functions. The passion that exchanges the natural function of sex between a man and a woman for the unnatural function of sex between a man and a man (or a woman and a woman) is what Paul calls a “degrading passion” (v. 26).
Note the other words Paul uses of same-sex behavior (including, notably, lesbianism): a lust of the heart, an impurity that is dishonoring to the body (v. 24); an indecent act and an error (v. 27); unnatural (v. 26); not proper and the product of a depraved mind (v. 28).
There’s only one way the point of this passage can be missed: if someone is in total revolt against God, which is precisely Paul’s point. According to the apostle, homosexual behavior (among other sins) is evidence of active, persistent, willful rebellion against the Creator (v. 32). For those defending their homosexuality, God’s response is explicit: “They are without excuse” (v. 20).
There is not the slightest hint in any of what Paul writes in Rom. 1 that he restricts his condemnation of homosexuality to “same-sex behavior…characterized by lustfulness, disrespect, and selfishness, not love and commitment.” That is fabrication. Homosexual conduct is wrong because it rejects the natural sexual complement God has ordained for man: a woman. That was Paul’s view, and if Paul’s, then God’s view, too.
Scripture follows an unmistakable pattern regarding homosexuality. God establishes a certain sexual order, then man rebels, rejecting it for something else. He goes after strange flesh. He beds a man the way he’s supposed to bed a woman. He exchanges God’s truth for a lie, abandons the natural function of the woman, and burns with unnatural desire towards other men.
The revisionist “reformation” has more to say on the Bible and homosexuality. We will answer those points in Part 2 of this series. (forthcoming)
1 E.g., Soulforce, the Gay Christian Network, and The Marin Foundation.
2 The conference that co-author Alan Shlemon attended in Washington, D.C. had more than 300 attendees.
3 LGBT stands for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender.”
4 This and other citations are taken from the Reformation Project D.C. Conference 2014 Program, unless specified otherwise.
5 I think this phrase is misleading, so I’ve added scare quotes in this instance.
6 Two of the theological leaders of this movement, Evangelical ethicist David Gushee and theologian James Brownson, have family members who identify as gay or lesbian.
7 Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), 80.
8 For details, see DeYoung, 83-86, citing, among others, Thomas K. Hubbard, ed., Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Ancient Documents (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
9 All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.
10 Sam Allberry, Is God Anti-Gay? (United Kingdom: Good Book Co., 2013), 15.
11 Current reproductive technologies notwithstanding. Medically subverting God’s purpose does not nullify it.
17Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek/English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 885-6.