Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition

An oxymoron is a contradiction of terms. Examples include: thunderous silence, cruel kindness, and make haste slowly. Some oxymorons originate accidentally; others intentionally, to produce a startling rhetorical effect. Many are humorous. Some are deceiving (genuine imitation). Most only seem contradictory, but further reflection reveals a deeper truth. Others are real contradictions. To this latter category belongs the label “gay Christian,” which is not only deceiving, but dangerous.

Gay activists have been rather successful in their effort to normalize homosexuality in the wider culture, winning their most significant battle to date in the landmark Obergefell decision.[1] They have also had a surprising degree of success in convincing Christians that same-sex sexual relationships meet with the same divine approval as those between a husband and wife.

S. Donald Fortson III and Rolling G. Grams have convincingly rebutted these activists in their recent book, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016). Fortson is professor of church history and practical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, and Grams is associate professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

As the subtitle suggests, the book examines both the tradition of the church and the text of Scripture. In the first half of the book, Fortson marshals an impressive amount of primary source material from church history. The verdict is clear that there has been a consistent Christian sexual ethic taught by the church through the various stages of its history, from the Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene fathers (chap. 2), through the Middle Ages (chap. 3), during the Renaissance and Reformation (chap. 4), and well into modern times (chaps. 5 and 6). This ethic is rooted in Scripture and rejects homosexual behavior of all kinds.

In chapter 7, Fortson traces the rise of an aggressive, gay activism within a number of mainline denominations:  the United Church of Christ (UCC), The Episcopal Church (TEC), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA), the Reformed Church in America (RCA), the American Baptist Churches USA (ABC/USA), and the United Methodist Church (UMC). Official ecclesial responses range from openly embracing homosexuals (as members, recognizing and conducting same-sex unions, and ordaining them to pastoral ministry) to officially disapproving of their behavior, but in fact affirming and accepting them by failing to uphold denominational standards.

In the second half of the book, Grams examines specific biblical texts dealing with homoerotic behavior and the spin revisionist scholars put on them. In chapter 8, he answers the question of whether or not there is a consistent ethic in Scripture. Contra the revisionists, Grams convincingly shows the answer to be yes, and that this ethic consists of more than a general principle (love thy neighbor); it consists of particular, concrete commands, including clear prohibitions of homosexuality.

In chapter 9, he takes up the specific Old Testament passages forbidding homosexual behavior and sets them in the light of the OT’s overall teaching on sex, marriage, and family. He proceeds to discuss the nature of Sodom’s sins (chap. 10), homosexuality in the Ancient Near East, and Jewish views of homosexuality after Old Testament times, looking at the intertestamental period, the writings of Philo and Josephus, the Sibylline Oracles, the Mishnah and Tosefta, the Babylonian Talmud and Midrash Rabbah (chap 11).

In chapters 13-18, he turns his attention to the teaching of the New Testament, and again, setting the specific prohibition of homosexual behavior in the larger context of the consistent biblical sexual ethic.

In chapters 15 and 16 Gram effectively refutes the claim that the idea of sexual orientation was unknown in the ancient world. He gives an in-depth analysis of how the Greek term malakoi (as used in 1 Cor. 6:9), which he translates as “soft men,” was used in antiquity.

It was used, along with other words conveying the same idea, as a broad notion. “Soft men” were aesthetes, persons with loose morals, sexually promiscuous persons, and, in particular, men with an unnatural female orientation who engaged in homosexual practices. They were “men-women,” males who presented a feminine appearance in public. Most importantly, they were oriented to this sort of life. (p. 300)

In chapters 17 and 18, he takes up Paul’s language in Romans 1 concerning “nature” (“their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature”; “men likewise gave up natural relations with women”). Revisionists deny that this language refers to homosexual behavior per se. But Gram weighs all of the alternative explanations in the balances and finds them wanting. He shows that Paul “was using conventional language” in speaking of homoerotic behavior as “against” or “contrary to nature” and sex between a man and a woman as “according to nature.” He cites ancient Greek philosophers, Jewish sources, and early Christian authors showing that this was common place. “Moreover, ‘according to nature’ and ‘against nature’ were the way to discuss these points.” (p. 336, emphasis in the original)

He observes that in the final analysis, “the exegetical arguments [of the revisionist] are not really important. The real issue, as it turns out, is neither exegesis nor what the church has taught but whether the Bible is authoritative.” (p. 366)

Fortson and Grams have shown that Scripture unambiguously prohibits homosexual sexual relations of all kinds. It is homosexuality per se and not merely one or more varieties (pederasty, homosexual rape, male-prostitution, promiscuity, incestuous homosexual relationships, orgies, etc.) that Scripture condemns. Various elements in the different varieties merely aggravate the underlying sin, which is the same-sex act itself.  

Unchanging Witness demonstrates that all attempts to reconcile Scripture with homosexual practice are doomed to failure. The exegetical contortions necessary for the reconciliation are strikingly absurd. 

The good news for those ensnared in this sinful way of life is that there is hope in Jesus Christ and in the power of his grace.

At the heart of Paul's letter to the Romans is his affirmation that Jesus not only provides forgiveness of sins but also introduces into our lives the transforming power of his resurrection (Rom 8:1-17). The modern religion of tolerance denies the “power of the cross” (1 Cor 1:17-18). Paul, however, argues that the depravity into which humanity has sunk—illustrated by the confusion people  have about homosexual practice despite the obvious way in which males and females were created (Rom 1:24-28)—can be overcome. The work of Christ and the Holy Spirit—God’s mercy toward unjust sinners—offers the possibility of transformation by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2). (p. 376)

[1] Obergefell et al. v. Hodges. “Held: The Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-State.” (https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/14pdf/14-556_3204.pdf)


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