Luke Timothy Johnson on Homosexuality and Scripture

Luke Timothy Johnson, the Robert R. Woodruff Professor of New Testament at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, has a very thoughtful essay on the current disputes about GLBT relationships. It is a long essay that is well worth a read. (There is a response by Eve Tushnet). Here are highlights:

The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says. But what are we to do with what the text says? We must state our grounds for standing in tension with the clear commands of Scripture, and include in those grounds some basis in Scripture itself. To avoid this task is to put ourselves in the very position that others insist we already occupy-that of liberal despisers of the tradition and of the church’s sacred writings, people who have no care for the shared symbols that define us as Christian. If we see ourselves as liberal, then we must be liberal in the name of the gospel, and not, as so often has been the case, liberal despite the gospel.

I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us. By so doing, we explicitly reject as well the premises of the scriptural statements condemning homosexuality-namely, that it is a vice freely chosen, a symptom of human corruption, and disobedience to God’s created order.

Implicit in an appeal to experience is also an appeal to the living God whose creative work never ceases, who continues to shape humans in his image every day, in ways that can surprise and even shock us. Equally important, such an appeal goes to the deepest truth revealed by Scripture itself-namely, that God does create the world anew at every moment, does call into being that which is not, and does raise the dead to new and greater forms of life.

Our situation vis-à-vis the authority of Scripture is not unlike that of abolitionists in nineteenth-century America. During the 1850s, arguments raged over the morality of slave-holding, and the exegesis of Scripture played a key role in those debates. The exegetical battles were one-sided: all abolitionists could point to was Galatians 3:28 and the Letter of Philemon, while slave owners had the rest of the Old and New Testaments, which gave every indication that slaveholding was a legitimate, indeed God-ordained social arrangement, one to which neither Moses nor Jesus nor Paul raised a fundamental objection. So how is it that now, in the early twenty-first century, the authority of the scriptural texts on slavery and the arguments made on their basis appear to all of us, without exception, as completely beside the point and deeply wrong?

The answer is that over time the human experience of slavery and its horror came home to the popular conscience-through personal testimony and direct personal contact, through fiction like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and, of course, through a great Civil War in which ghastly numbers of people gave their lives so that slaves could be seen not as property but as persons. As persons, they could be treated by the same law of love that governed relations among all Christians, and could therefore eventually also realize full civil rights within society. And once that experience of their full humanity and the evil of their bondage reached a stage of critical consciousness, this nation could neither turn back to the practice of slavery nor ever read the Bible in the same way again.

Many of us who stand for the full recognition of gay and lesbian persons within the Christian communion find ourselves in a position similar to that of the early abolitionists-and of the early advocates for women’s full and equal roles in church and society. We are fully aware of the weight of scriptural evidence pointing away from our position, yet place our trust in the power of the living God to reveal as powerfully through personal experience and testimony as through written texts. To justify this trust, we invoke the basic Pauline principle that the Spirit gives life but the letter kills (2 Corinthians 3:6). And if the letter of Scripture cannot find room for the activity of the living God in the transformation of human lives, then trust and obedience must be paid to the living God rather than to the words of Scripture.

For me this is no theoretical or academic position, but rather a passionate conviction. It is one many of us have come to through personal struggle, and for some, real suffering. In my case, I trusted that God was at work in the life of one of my four daughters, who struggled against bigotry to claim her sexual identity as a lesbian. I trusted God was at work in the life she shares with her partner-a long-lasting and fruitful marriage dedicated to the care of others, and one that has borne fruit in a wonderful little girl who is among my and my wife’s dear grandchildren. I also trusted the many stories of students and friends whose life witnessed to a deep faith in God but whose bodies moved sexually in ways different from the way my own did. And finally I began to appreciate the ways in which my own former attitudes and language had helped to create a world where family, friends, and students were treated cruelly.

. . .

The challenge, therefore, is to discern what constitutes the positive and negative in sexual behavior. A start would be to adapt Galatians 3:28 and state that “in Christ there is neither gay nor straight”-and on that basis, to begin to ask serious questions concerning the holiness of the church, applying the same criteria on both sides. If porneia among heterosexuals includes promiscuity, violence, and exploitation, then the church must condemn similar forms of homosexual activity. If the church condemns the bath-house style of gay life, it must also condemn the playboy style of straight life. Similarly, if holiness among heterosexuals includes fidelity, chastity, modesty, and fruitfulness, we can ask whether and how the same elements are present in same-sex love.

Such discernment is difficult, but it is necessary. I believe there is the deepest sort of consonance between such an approach to God’s revelation and the witness of the New Testament. Indeed, the New Testament compositions owe their existence to the struggle to resolve the cognitive dissonance between a set of sacred texts that appeared to exclude a crucified messiah as God’s chosen one (“cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree,” Deuteronomy 21:23) and the powerful experience of Jesus’ new and exalted life as Lord through the Holy Spirit-an experience that empowered the first believers.

Read it all.

I have touched in past posts on the importance of experience in theology for one who believes that God still operates in the world today. This essay is a wonderfully detailed explanation for how experience has in the past, and should again, inform our decisions on issues.


Sola Scriptura said…
In response to Dr. Johnson, I have only the briefiest comments:
1) The slave analogy is flawed, both biblically and analogically. Slavery was never proscribed in Scripture as homosexuality was, so therefore the effort to use the developments of the former for the validation of the latter are at once, flawed, before even further scrutiny is applied;
2)The bottom line seems to be that Dr. Johnson, while exegeting the Scriptures correctly at the level of biblical theology, has faltered at the level of systematic theology/ethics, and is in fact, going against his own conclusions because of the influence of something other than Scripture (e.g., experience, reason, philosophy, etc., which are not wrong in and of themselves and can be an aid to theology if they leave the biblical evidence in tact, which has decidely not been done here).
Much more could (and should be said).

Anonymous said…
As a practicing Christian who "tests all things", I have come to see scripture as an integral part of my life as a source of truth. The Bible does not cover everything situation, but does cover morality in depth. Dr. Johnson does give an eloquent argument concerning homosexuality, but not convincing. He has basically said that although God said the homosexual act is wrong, we should allow homosexuality because we are now more 'enlightened' than we were in centuries past. I agree with the premise that homosexuals should be treated lovingly, as they are human beings created in the image and likeness of God. But the homosexual act is still disordered, and those who practice it will find themselves in a disordered state. The people themselves in this age may be more sensitive to the rights and feelings of others, and rightfully so. But what are we sacrificing by permitting disorder? Doesn't the Bible, as well as Christian tradition teach that we are to lovingly instruct each other in truth? Firstly so by the way we live, and secondarily by calling a spade a spade, and lovingly trying to lead them to truth. Hate the sin, love the sinner. You cannot love the sinner by sitting idly by and not offering correction. Its theirs to choose or reject.
Douglas Nast said…
The slavery analogy has no legs. That the world condemns where God does not, does not invite us to embrace the things God condemns. This sophistry is unworthy, but it is of a piece with the spirit that makes man the measure of all things....since he has lately, at least in the West, condemned slavery, God surely does too...he just neglected to say so. But what is it but man's own self-love that is repulsed by the idea of a life of servitude? Just making the argument that you have made betrays deep spiritual problems.
Anonymous said…
Douglas Nast states it well. The slavery analogy really disappointing from a man the stature of Mr. Johnson. It shows that one can be a scholar and bring great research to the table but have one's thinking clouded by culture - such that all rationality flies out the window. On the one hand it is shocking; on the other, it is typical and common.

God doesn't condemn slavery but he does institute principles in Philemon (completely ignored in Mr. Johnson's slavery analogy) that so mitigate slavery (since it was impractical to change it in the ancient world) as to do away with it. Philemon was to receive Onesimus "no longer as a slave ... but ... as a brother." The slavery of the 19th century in America was nothing like this! It was racial (that is clearly condemned in Scripture). It is perfectly legitimate for a society to abolish that - from a Biblical standpoint. Not just a cultural one.

But, that Scripture clearly sees homosexuality as contrary to God's will - as Mr. Johnson readily admits - puts this in a different light (Scripture nowhere puts slavery in this light, "if you abolish slavery you are engaging in human corruption and disobedience to God's created order" - Mr. Johnson's own words for homosexuality). So, two different categories.

One can show love, patience, understanding and faith with those who - for reasons still debated and not as scientifically certain as Mr. Johnson alleges - are inclined to live a homosexual lifestyle. Inclination or not - living, even in celibacy, is a reasonable and honorable lifestyle commitment. Mr. Johnson has given into a sexually charged culture and his course will ultimately render Scripture impotent.
dannyyencich said…
The link to the original article is broken. I am hoping you could please point me in the direction of LTJ's original essay. Please help if possible!
athellam said…
While I am late to the conversation, I believe it poignant to note that just as slavery was different in the second temple period from that of 19th century racial-based slavery, so too were homosexual acts drastically (esp. morally) different from that of homosexuality today.
Anonymous said…
It appears we have difficulty in our modern world in believing that God is serious about us dying to self and living for God, and that God has the power to deliver from all sin. So, we blame God for self-centeredness and rebellion and assume He will lovingly overlook our actions. We would rather make God in our own image than cast ourselves upon the only true God! Sorry, but when you choose family over God, both you and your family lose. You have cut off the only means for their salvation.
doncecca said…
Are we sure he is a catholic?

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