The church is going through a time of severe fracture. Schism is taking place on a scale not seen since the 16th century, and the reasons for this come into clear focus on the issue of homosexuality. The gay Christian movement and revisionist theologians and exegetes have set up an array of arguments, often mutually exclusive, in favor of homosexual practice.
S. Donald Fortson, who serves as professor of church history and practical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, and Rollin G. Grams, who serves as associate professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, address the above arguments on a single point: Can they withstand the evidence of the primary sources?
We recently corresponded with them and posed three questions about this contentious and important discussion.
You write, “Both of us fear that segments of the Christian church are approaching apostasy and believe the church will benefit from a work that applies our respective disciplines to the study of homosexuality.” How does your goal of presenting both tradition and a serious examination of the biblical texts help encourage and equip the church today?
Fortson: Unfortunately, some evangelicals have already capitulated on homosexuality, and I see this as especially tempting for the 20 somethings who have been fed gay propaganda for their entire lives – the press, Hollywood and their college professors. Added to this, they hear about some claiming to be “Christian” who discovered that homosexuality and Christianity are compatible. Our book is intended to help believers cut through the distortions and false information being spread by the gay Christian movement. Unfortunately, part of the church has been duped by shallow biblical scholarship, and intentional disregard for the teachings of historic Christianity. We want to equip the church to “spot the lie” in the purported arguments that say the Bible really is not opposed to homosexuality. The book explains how pro-gay attempts to undermine certain Scripture texts are convoluted and contradict one another. In addition, we bring church history “out of the closet” as a secondary authority beside Scripture. Homosexual practice has been affirmed nowhere, never, by no one in the history of the Church. We would argue that if the Bible was at all unclear on this topic, we would expect to find some dissenting voices in the past, but none exist – which underscores again that there is one voice in Scripture, and one voice in church history on this topic. This unanimity is a powerful witness – an unchanging witness to Christianity’s consistent stance on the sinfulness of any form of homosexual practice.
Grams: An examination of biblical texts is required because the long-term interpretation of those texts has been challenged by revisionist interpreters in the contemporary West. Ever since the days of the early Church, heretical challenges to biblical truth have abounded, and Church history entails studying how the orthodox Church has negotiated these aberrations. The Jerusalem Church had to correct erroneous teaching within twenty years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, saying ‘certain persons who have gone out from us, though with no instructions from us, have said things to disturb you and unsettled your minds’ (Acts 15.24). Paul said to the Ephesians, ‘I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them’ (Acts 20.29-30). This is exactly what is happening in our day as well with several issues, particularly the denial that homosexual practice is a sin. Some people are bending Christian teaching to flow with the grain of an increasingly post-Christian, Western culture. For them, Christian witness was first bent to a culture of tolerance and is now being bent to a politically correct culture of affirmation.
We believe that the real issue facing the Church around this issue is one of biblical authority: will we abide by the Word of God or not? But to get to that question, we need to explain how the Church has understood the teaching of Scripture on this issue through the nearly 21 centuries of its existence and whether the Church has somehow misunderstood Scripture. On the one hand, revisionists ignore the Church’s testimony through the ages, and we wanted to put that in black and white right up front. On the other hand, they have either claimed that the Church has misread Scripture on this issue or that it has read Scripture accurately but simply needs to oppose the clear teaching of the Word of God.
There is little to do about the second of these alternatives, but we believe that there is still reason to engage the former issue—a thorough study of what the Bible says and how its teaching on this issue went against the cultures of the Ancient Near East, Greece, and Rome over many centuries in biblical times. There is also room for other studies in pastoral care, Christian education, legal matters, and so forth, but our book deals with the primary sources for Church history and the Bible in its contexts. We are hopeful that some sincere persons who are disoriented by the various winds of doctrine will be helped by our research into Scripture and the primary sources of the Bible’s surrounding cultures and of the Church.
You also state, “While unorthodox teaching gained traction for a season, truth prevailed in the end. In a similar vein the twenty-first century Western church is facing an Arian-like moment in the ecclesiastical politics of homosexuality.” Are you optimistic that the church—and truth—will triumph in our day?
Fortson: Historically, Christians have always taken biblically-defined sexual ethics seriously – in fact, this was a distinguishing mark of believers which set them apart from the pagan population in the early centuries. Among believers sexual relations were exclusively limited to marriage between a man and woman – no premarital sex, no adultery, no prostitutes, and no same-sex lovers allowed. And church discipline for violations was practiced – one sees evidence for this especially in the medieval penitential literature. Likewise, the Protestant Reformers knew of homosexual practice in their day and spoke out against it. These historic witnesses are important for God’s people to know today. This unbroken chain of Christian teaching down through the centuries encourages us to stand firm and hold on to “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” The contemporary church has no authority to re-read the Bible and make it say that a follower of Christ can practice gay sex with God’s blessing. The duplicity in the gay Christian movement is transparent, and the arguments they present are not credible – therefore most Christian are not fooled by this false teaching . As the Anglican bishops in the global south have boldly pointed out – the western “Christians” that now teach “gay is OK” are preaching a false gospel. The truth will triumph, for the Spirit leads the Church in the truth, the truth given to us in Holy Scripture.
Grams: We are, like Elijah of old, called to be faithful, whether truth triumphs for a season or not. Our point in this quote was that even in the face of widespread opposition to truth in certain denominations in the West, we might find some comfort in knowing that the larger Church eventually righted itself through biblical fidelity. Yet Paul, speaking of his own day, said that ‘in the last days distressing times will come’ (2 Tim. 3.1). The challenge for the Church in the face of heresy or cultural opposition is the same: remain faithful.
That said, the major growth of the Church in the world today is in what is called the ‘Global South.’ The growth of Christianity continues in South America, Africa, and Asia, while it is declining in Europe and North America. The old, mainline denominations in the West pressing a revisionist agenda have lost so many orthodox believers since the 1960s that their views represent an increasing percentage in groups that are rapidly declining. They cannot find solace in their decreasing appeal by claiming that they have remained faithful. They have not. Any triumphant revisionists in declining denominations are also ignoring the growth of other orthodox denominations in the West and the rapid growth of the worldwide Church. For example, weekly church attendance in the Church of England is now down to 760,000 in all of England (less than 2% of the population), while the Anglican Church has grown from 7.7 million to over 55 million in Africa from 1970 to today. There is reason to have hope that the faith that mainline denominations once delivered to mission fields—a faith to which they no longer adhere—will find its way back via faithful missionaries from the Global South. Ultimately, however, the situation in the world will be one of lawlessness—that is, opposition to God’s Law (1 Thessalonians 2.3)—before the Lord returns. We simply do not know whether we will see a revival of Christian culture in the West at this time or an increasing lawlessness in the culture as the time of Christ approaches. Either way, there is hope—hope in a return to truth or in the return of Christ.
What revisionist arguments of Scripture and tradition do you think have had the most sway (in mainstream American culture and within the church)? And, briefly, how would you counter these?
Grams: One of the things I track in this book, to a limited extent, is the shifting landscape for revisionists. In the 1980s, among scholars, Presbyterian Robin Scroggs possibly led the discussion in New Testament studies with his view that pederasty was the main form of homosexuality in the Graeco-Roman world and that this is what Paul was opposing—not monogamous, loving, same-sex unions. That view still has a few echoes here and there, but the arguments have long since moved on and in diverse directions. We now have a confusing array of disparate and contradictory notions regarding biblical texts from revisionists on the issue of homosexuality. One cannot say that there is ‘a revisionist position,’ since revisionist scholars actually disagree with one another. One says Paul was opposing pederasty, another claims he was opposing heterosexuals going against their ‘nature’ by giving homosexuality a try, another claims that the real problem was the pagan temples, with homosexual prostitution practiced there, and another scholar suggests that the real issue was master’s engaging in homosexual acts with unwilling slaves. There are other arguments, too. My point is that the suggested interpretations are incompatible with one another. The object of the revisionist academic game seems to be to see how long a given argument can be kept afloat before it sinks—long enough to change the direction of a church or denomination, for example. So, for example, Jack Rogers, another Presbyterian peddling a pro-homosexual reading of Scripture some twenty years after Scroggs, did not even reference Scroggs in his book. As one argument sinks, another is floated, giving the impression to the casual observer that the revisionist interpretation of Scripture can stay afloat. The second half of our book examines the primary sources, even though we do engage some of these various, erroneous readings. Our goal is to equip readers with the relevant primary sources and to discuss them afresh so that readers can engage whichever one of the revisionist arguments arises in their contexts.
Not a few scholars who approve of homosexual practice have done so without a revisionist reading of the biblical texts. They would rather revise the Church’s position on biblical authority itself. For them, the Bible actually does condemn homosexual practice but, they say, it should not be obeyed. For us, too, the issue comes down to biblical authority, although in our case, of course, we affirm the historic Church’s position of living under biblical authority. What else does it mean to be Christian if not to follow the Scriptures? We are facing a watershed issue for the Church in the so-called West—in Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa in particular. The issue is not only over revisionist readings of Scripture, but also over biblical authority itself—and the various issues that arise when Scripture is no longer followed. The only appropriate response by God’s people to this onslaught against Scripture is to continue to love God by obeying His commandments.
Request a faculty review copy here.
Request a media review copy here.