Slavery, Homosexuality, and
the Bible: A Response
Robert A. J. Gagnon, Ph.D.
Krehbiel has written
a “Viewpoint” piece for Presbyweb (Feb. 4, 2004) in which he insists
that the Bible’s stance on slavery is analogous to the Bible’s stance on
homosexual behavior. It is not. Slavery is a very bad analogue and the use
of it as such reflects badly on the hermeneutical acumen of those who
employ it. Here are four reasons why slavery analogy is a bridge too far.
No mandate. There is no scriptural mandate to enslave
others, nor does one incur a penalty for releasing slaves. No noble values
ever ‘rode’ on the preservation of the institution of slavery. Selling
oneself into slavery was seen as a last-ditch measure to avoid
starvation—at best a necessary evil in a state with limited welfare
resources (Lev 25:39). There is, however, a scriptural mandate to
limit sexual unions to heterosexual ones, with a severe penalty (in this
life or the next) imposed on violators.
Not pre-Fall. Unlike the opposite-sex prerequisite,
Scripture does not ground slavery in pre-Fall structures. Even if one were
to contend that this is a dehistoricizing argument, based on myth, the
creation story still tells us that the biblical writers viewed
heterosexual unions, unlike slavery, as normative and transcultural.
The Bible’s trajectory of critique. One can discern a
trajectory within the Bible that critiques slavery. Front and center in
Israelite memory was its remembrance of God’s liberation from slavery in
Egypt (e.g., Exod 22:21; 23:9; Lev 25:42, 55; Deut 15:15). Christian
memory adds the paradigmatic event of Christ’s redemption of believers
from slavery to sin and people (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23; and often).
Consequently, Israelite law put various restrictions on enslaving fellow
Israelites—mandatory release dates, the right of near-kin redemption, not
returning runaway slaves, and insisting that Israelites not be treated as
slaves—while Paul in 1 Cor 7:21-23 and Phlm 16 regarded liberation from
slavery as at least a penultimate good.
The canon of Scripture shows considerable discomfort with the institution
of slavery. Yet there is not the slightest indication anywhere in the
canon that same-sex intercourse is anything other than a detested practice
to be utterly eschewed by the people of God, Jew and Gentile believer
alike, in all circumstances. The discomfort that Scripture shows is not
with any opposition to same-sex intercourse but rather with any
accommodation to “gender bending.”
The Bible’s countercultural witness. Although the
contemporary church has gone beyond the Bible in its total opposition to
slavery, the biblical stance was fairly liberating in relation to the
cultures out of which these texts emerged. The precise opposite is the
case with the Bible’s stance on same-sex intercourse. The Bible expresses
far greater disapproval of such behavior than do the cultures of its day.
Simply put, Scripture
nowhere expresses a vested interest in preserving slavery, whereas
Scripture does express a clear countercultural and creational vested
interest in preserving an exclusive male-female dynamic to human sexual
relationships. Rev. Krehbiel ignores this point entirely.
Rev. Krehbiel argues that,
regardless of the Bible’s actual position on slavery, “biblical” defenses
of slavery in the pre-Civil War period sound like biblical critiques of
homosexual practice today. Again, this misses the point: Scripture itself
does not provide the kind of clear and unequivocal witness for
slavery that it exhibits against same-sex intercourse.
According to Rev. Krehbiel,
“the grand sweep of the Bible's message is toward freedom and liberation
from bondage, and the emphasis in Jesus' ministry was toward welcome of
the outcast.” Odd, then, that Jesus should take an already narrowly
defined view of sexual ethics given in the Bible and narrow it even
further. Did Jesus not understand the very love commandments that he
lifted up? Odd, too, that Paul—no slouch on the matter of grace and
freedom from the law—did the same. Liberationist ethics, in the sense of
release from binding commands, has never worked well for the sex ethics
promoted by Jesus and upheld by the apostolic witness.
Rev. Krehbiel says: “Dr.
Gagnon's arguments notwithstanding, the Bible is simply silent on the
issue of loving, faithful, monogamous relationships between two persons of
the same sex.” The problem here is twofold. First, the Bible does speak to
the issue of loving, faithful, monogamous relationships, just as it speaks
to the issue of loving, faithful, monogamous adult incestuous unions.
It addresses them by taking up all possible forms under absolute
proscriptions, making matters of commitment secondary to larger structural
concerns such as prohibiting unions between people who are too much alike.
Indeed, employing Rev. Krehbiel’s arguments for endorsing homosexual
practice, I can make an even better case for committed, adult incestuous
unions. What could be a greater case of sexual ostracism than a man and
mother, a woman and her father, or two adult siblings wanting to be in a
loving, committed, monogamous sexual relationship?
Moreover, Rev. Krehbiel has little basis for holding onto a monogamy
prerequisite. Polygamists—whether in the “traditional” mode or in a
non-patriarchal mode such as “threesomes”—arguably are greater outcasts in
today’s society than persons who engage in homoerotic intercourse. The
case from Scripture and nature for supporting polyamorous unions is far
stronger than the case for homosexual behavior—though, it is true, Jesus’
pronouncement on divorce and remarriage effectively eliminated the
concession to male hardness of heart given in the Mosaic allowance for
polygyny. Why, too, should Rev. Krehbiel be insistent about the sacredness
of number “two” with regard to sexual relationships while cavalierly
discarding the even more essential other-sex prerequisite given in
Scripture? Finally, let’s not forget that the conjunction of “monogamy”
and “homoerotic unions,” at least with respect to male-male relationships,
is largely a fiction. As J. Michael Bailey—chair of the department of
psychology at Northwestern, perhaps the most prominent researcher of
homosexuality, and a strong advocate for “gay rights”—has written:
“Because of fundamental differences between men and women . . . . [and]
regardless of marital laws and policies . . . . gay men will always have
many more sex partners than straight people do. . . . Both heterosexual
and homosexual people will need to be open minded about social practices
common to people of other orientations” (The Man Who Would Be Queen
[Joseph Henry Press, 2003]). Similarly, Marvin Ellison, professor of
Christian Ethics at Bangor Theological Seminary and also a homosexual man
and ordained minister of the PCUSA, has questioned the limitation of
marriage to two persons at any one time: “How exactly does the number of
partners affect the moral quality of a relationship?” (Same-Sex
Marriage [Pilgrim, 2004]).
Nor should we think that bestowing marriage to homosexual couples will
somehow be a boon for the institution of marriage generally when well over
90% of such unions will not be of twenty-year duration or more (let alone
lifelong) and monogamous and free of disease. As Stanley
Kurtz has shown, granting something equivalent to “gay marriage” in
Scandinavian countries has contributed to the decline of marriage
second problem with Rev. Krehbiel’s claim that the Bible is silent about
committed homoerotic unions is that committed homoerotic relationships
were known in the ancient world. Why Rev. Krehbiel pretends to be
oblivious to this fact is a mystery to me. The evidence is clearly laid
out in my work. Rev. Krehbiel’s claim that the Bible is “silent” on the
question of committed homoerotic relationships simply underscores that
Rev. Krehbiel has not read (or understood) my arguments—which, I suppose,
is why he can say “Dr. Gagnon’s arguments notwithstanding.”
Scripture does not reject same-sex intercourse in the first instance
because homoerotic unions lack commitment any more than Paul rejected the
case of a consensual adult incestuous union in 1 Corinthians 5 because of
commitment issues. It rejects same-sex intercourse because same-sex erotic
mergers represent a false attempt to complete one’s sexual self with a
sexual same. A sexual counterpart is required for reconstituting the
sexual whole of an original, sexually undifferentiated human. Erotic
desire for what one already is as a sexual being is sexual narcissism or
sexual self-deception: an erotic attraction either for oneself or for what
one wishes to be but in fact already is: male for male, female for female.
As with consensual adult incest, issues of commitment and monogamy are
simply beside the point and come into play only after the
prerequisites for a valid sexual union are met.
for Rev. Krehbiel’s claim that only a “handful of biblical texts” speak
negatively against homosexual practice, the reality is that every biblical
text that says anything about sexual behavior presumes as an essential
prerequisite that proper merger requires the two sexes.
Rev. Krehbiel would have us believe that Jesus and the united witness of
Scripture were wrong in lifting up the male-female/man-woman prerequisite
for sexual relationships established at creation. I prefer to side with
Jesus and the united witness of Scripture and see little evidence from
socio-scientific evidence that the church should think otherwise. What
Rev. Krehbiel lifts up as a new move of the Holy Spirit is in fact an old
move of the flesh that Jesus and the authors of Scripture did find, and
would find, appalling. Promoting such behavior—which can also increase the
incidence of homosexuality in the population—does not come under the rule
of love, whatever Rev. Krehbiel or others may think.
© 2004 Robert A. J. Gagnon