Thinking Morally about Same-Sex Love

Let us suppose that, as Robert Gagnon argues,[1] the scriptural presumption against the moral legitimacy of same-sex love is thorough and without exception. Not all exegetes agree with this interpretation, but let us set the exegetical question aside for now. Even if the Bible indeed says it, and we believe it, that does not necessarily settle a moral issue for us. The Bible, after all, offers no moral objection to slavery, and though slavery in the ancient world was not the racialized slavery of the American antebellum south, neither was it something that we would countenance today. Slaves in the society in which the New Testament was composed could be raped, beaten, and in certain circumstances legally killed by their masters.[2] Thinking morally about applying scripture to our lives is a move beyond mere exegesis—the reading and interpreting of texts in their original contexts—to hermeneutics—what Richard Hays refers to as an “integrative act of the imagination” in which “we are necessarily engaged in metaphor-making, placing our community’s life imaginatively within the world articulated by the texts.”[3] For Christian communities, hermeneutics are tested by their practical outliving, by “their capacity to produce persons and communities whose character is commensurate with Jesus Christ and thereby pleasing to God.”[4]

Moral reasoning based on the norms of the natural order has traditionally been referred to as natural theology or natural law thought. On the other hand, thinking that privileges the experiences of the individual or of the community that seeks to interpret the world has been labeled as “narrative theology.” We cannot, however, sharply divide these areas of thought. Because natural law seeks the conditions for human flourishing, it must accord with the experiences of actual humans. We must therefore take a phenomenological approach to understanding romantic love and sexuality: what they are for and when they are disordered.

Why do romantic love and sexuality emerge in humans in the first place? Many theorists posit reproduction or social constructionism as evolutionary foundations of romantic love, but James Giles proposes a vulnerability and care theory that I find very persuasive and also compatible with the main themes of the Bible. For Giles, “The experience of being in love involves a complex of desires for reciprocal vulnerability in order to care and be cared for.”[5] Accordingly, sexual desire involves “the physical expression of these [romantic] desires in the form of desires for mutual baring in order to caress and be caressed.”[6]

Vulnerability, dependence, and care have also become central to Alasdair MacIntyre’s account of the moral life. For some time, MacIntyre had worked to establish an account of morality that was purely sociological, based in communal practices and tradition. In the introduction to his 2001 Dependent Rational Animals, he writes, “I now judge that I was in error in supposing an ethics independent of biology to be possible.”[7] MacIntyre thus seeks to reunite nature and narrative in his work.

Virtue always requires a telos, an end, a concrete conception of the good toward which actions should be oriented. Living morally as an embodied human, for MacIntyre, requires an awareness of two sets of irreducible biological facts: “Those concerning our vulnerabilities and afflictions and those concerning the extent of our dependence on particular others.”[8] The most basic fact of human life is that each one of us is born and maintained alive in a state of moral debt. Within such a natural order, the fundamental virtues are ones of “acknowledged dependence,” of which MacIntyre emphasizes “just generosity” and “elementary truthfulness.” Just generosity consists of three patterns of giving and receiving: affective/emotional relationships, hospitality, and openness to urgent need. Elementary truthfulness demands that we allow the other in any relationship to learn what they need to know, not concealing our own need to learn (that is, admitting our vulnerability), and not withdrawing from the circle of learning in some kind of “ironic detachment.”[9] Just generosity and elementary truthfulness are at the same time obligations that we as humans owe to one another and skills in which we strive to grow.

This account of the meaning inherent in human embodiment does not rely on strict gender binary or gender subordination. All human beings are infinitely indebted. As MacIntyre notes, some debts are measurable, but every parent’s “initial commitments” are in “in important respects unconditional,” because we never know what becoming a parent will end up demanding of us, and the human race could not carry on without such unconditional commitment.[10] Because all are infinitely indebted, all are equally bound to embrace the virtues of generosity and truthfulness, virtues that can only be established in relationship to particular others, that is, specific people as opposed to “humankind in general.” The reciprocal vulnerability of romantic relationships makes them a key institution for the cultivation of such virtues, and there is no compelling reason to presume that the genders of the individuals involved undoes that. Same-sex partners are as capable of generosity and truthfulness as opposite-sex partners, as these virtues do not rely on the natural subordination of one gender to another. Not only does gender subordination not figure into the virtues of acknowledged dependence, certain accounts of masculinity are toxic to them.[11] We may finally note in passing, though a much fuller account could be developed, that acknowledged dependence, just generosity, and elementary truthfulness are among the most central and persistent scriptural themes.

Robert Gagnon, however, perceives the gender binary as significant, not only because of his reliance upon biblical cosmology, but also on rationalist grounds. He writes that

If men and women are not really all that different…why is there little attraction to the opposite sex on the part of many homosexuals? For example, in male homosexuality, there must be something distinctively and significantly male in males, a masculine dimension utterly lacking in females, that causes some males to be attracted exclusively to other males and not, for example, to a female who exhibits stereotypically masculine traits.[12]

For Gagnon, this is what makes same-sex love unnatural and immoral: attraction to someone of one’s own gender is “sexual self-absorption and narcissism, or, perhaps worse, sexual self-deception.”[13] Self-absorption and self-deception would be clear violations of generosity and truthfulness. Gagnon’s analysis is problematic, however, as it defines essence (in this case, of gender) as infinitely more significant than individual identity. On Gagnon’s account, any attraction between two people of the same gender is in fact love of self, rather than love of another person, as no two men are more different from one another than any man from any woman. As a man, the only things I can love about another man are aspects of myself. I find this claim entirely unconvincing, as should everyone who has ever been in love with an individual and not every individual of a given gender. Moreover, as Paul Jewett observes, what makes a person other is not a matter of mere biological difference, but recognition of that person as an individual, “who is different from us and whom we may not seek constantly to conform to our desires.”[14] Otherness is not a biological feature, but a moral stance.

In fact, most elements of gender differentiation are deeply cultural and “anchored in the routines of the division of labor and the routines of one’s physical body.” [15] Isolde Karle observes that “each person (man or woman) is required (both implicitly and explicitly) constantly to emphasize those characteristics that correspond to the social definition of his or her gender identity and to carry out corresponding practices while suppressing inappropriate behaviors.”[16] Even the most basic aspects of daily routine—ways of walking, vocal intonation—are socially policed and “charged with an ethic, a politics and a cosmology.”[17] Thus, “women learn to smile, look down, and accept interruptions. In a particular way, women are taught how to sit, occupy space, and adopt appropriate postures.”[18]

Even at the biological level, there is no clear basis on which to speak of essential sex. There are many varieties of biologically intersex individuals, the result of various incongruities of up to five different biological variables, ranging from chromosomal factors in cell nuclei to external genitalia.[19]

It is not impossible for a “male” fetus (XY chromosomes and testes) to develop into a female—complete with labia, clitoris, a short vagina, breasts, feminine musculoskeletal structure, and female gender identity. This is the common pattern for intersexed persons with androgen insensitivity syndrome, one of the more common intersex conditions. Similarly, it is not impossible for a “female” fetus (XX chromosomes and ovaries) to develop into a male—complete with a phallus capable of vaginal penetration, male pattern hair growth, voice descent, masculine musculoskeletal development, and male gender identity—as is possible in more severe cases of congenital adrenal hypoplasia.[20]

Indeed, some individuals may never discover the underlying intersexual state of their gender identity. Gender is utterly irreducible to specific biological factors, and instead appears to emerge from some interstice of biological, mental, affective, social, and spiritual factors. As Megan DeFranza pointedly summarizes, “Males, females, and intersexed persons are all made of the same ‘stuff.’ We belong to the same order of being.”[21]

What do we do, then, with the exegesis that we set aside earlier? If scripture indeed condemns same-sex love as such, it is because scripture assumes a specific natural order with which human acts are either moral or intrinsically disordered. At this point, we may well ask why Paul would choose homoeroticism as the premier example of human rebellion in Romans 1. What makes it so clearly “contrary to nature” for Paul? Two major reasons present themselves, one literary and one social. First, there are clear literary-symbolic reasons for Paul to select same-sex eroticism as his illustration here. At the crowning of the creation account we find the gender binary, man and woman created together, divided, and reunited. Women pairing themselves with other women, and men with men, are a clear literary antonym to this. Indeed, Paul narrates a cosmic exchange, as human rebellion ends in this scene so antithetical to the creation account. Paul surely has Genesis 1-3 in mind here, but makes more direct reference to the Greek Life of Adam and Eve (sometimes called the Apocalypse of Moses), in which explicit mention is made of Adam and Eve “suppressing the truth,” “exchanging their glory for mortality” and exchanging their dominion for “unnatural subservience” to animals.[22] This is significant, as Greek Life narrates the fall somewhat differently from the Genesis account. The narrative is placed in the mouth of Eve, recounting the events to her children. Whereas Genesis portrays the serpent as the deceiver and does not mention Satan, Greek Life portrays Satan telling Eve through the serpent (a separate character from Satan) that he will only give her fruit from the tree if she will compel Adam to eat of it as well. She vows to do so, and though instantly upon eating she is shamed to perceive her nakedness and the deprivation of “the glory with which [she] was clothed” (20:3), she nonetheless carries out the plan to deceive Adam and force him to eat as well. (This may account for why Paul refers to women “exchanging” their natural relations for unnatural before mentioning men doing so, though other explanations are on offer.)[23] We cannot say conclusively how highly Paul regarded the account of Greek Life of Adam and Eve. He may have taken its fuller account of the fall narrative as entirely authoritative, or he may have regarded it as an expansive work that was literally untrue but highlighted important themes left implicit in the Genesis narrative. In any case, he clearly affirmed the elements that he incorporated into his own mini-creation account in Romans 1, and Greek Life seems to have informed how he understood φυσις/nature, and thus what “accords with” or “opposes” nature.

The second driving reason for Paul to choose homoeroticism as the premier illustration of fallenness is the culture in which Paul lived. A reader today who peruses Greco-Roman literature depicting or referencing homoeroticism cannot help but come away alarmed and disturbed by the practices with which Paul would have been most familiar. Virtually all same-sex contact was oppressive or violent: promiscuity, prostitution, and pederasty.[24] In Roman society, the distinction between active and passive partners in male same-sex acts was of extreme importance, with the active partner being considered especially masculine precisely because the passive partner was being “used, humiliated, and physically and morally damaged.” [25] Sarah Ruden writes that, “Heterosexual penetration could be harmless in the Christian community, in marriage… homosexual penetration could be harmless nowhere. There were no gay households; there were in fact no gay institutions or gay culture at all, in the sense of times or places in which it was mutually safe for men to have anal sex with one another.”[26] Ruden cites a wide number of writings—mostly journal entries and poems written so as to appear light-hearted—from leering men hoping to use slaves and young boys (one writes of his love for boys aged twelve to sixteen, allowing that possibly one could be attracted to a boy so old as seventeen, but warning that “if someone has a yen for older boys, he’s not playing anymore but looking to get some of what he gives”), as well as boys fearful of being so used. [27] Ruden is impressed that while many Greco-Roman moralists and satirists “lit into” passive homosexuality—that is, into the victims—Paul leveled his criticism against men who engage in such acts, and thereby shame not the victim, but themselves.[28]

However, this analysis (like the more popular work of John Boswell) fails to account for Paul’s mention of female same-sex relationships, which were of a fundamentally different character. Surely, this omission is in part because there is vastly more extant Greco-Roman writing about male same-sex relationships than female. Bernadette Brooten, however, has amassed a tremendous amount of ancient material on the subject, focusing upon the poems of Sappho, Greek erotic spells and potions (some of which were used by women to attract women they loved), astrological texts, medical texts, and dream interpretation manuals. The attitudes reflected across this wide spectrum of materials reflects the consistent and persistent belief that the natural role for women was passivity, and thus “Paul condemns sexual relations between women as ‘unnatural’ because he shares the widely held cultural view that women are passive by nature and therefore should remain passive in sexual relations.”[29] Paul upholds heterosexuality for the same reason he expects women to submit to men: the misogynistic assumptions of his cultural worldview.

Given that our scientific, philosophical, and experiential resources do not support this understanding of nature, are we pressed to reconsider the naturalness of what the authors of scripture knew to be unnatural? This is a complex hermeneutical question. The Bible, according to Charles Cosgrove, “contains both momentous and trivial instances of scientifically outmoded empirical knowledge. To take a weighty example, the temporal and cosmological aspects of much early Christian eschatology is [sic] untenable within the modern scientific worldview. An inconsequential example is the Gospel saying, ‘The eye is the lamp of the body…,’ which assumes that the eye is a source of light.”[30] With the exception of extreme fundamentalists—such as flat-earth conspiracy theorists and geocentrists—Christians have typically been content to grant that such empirical knowledge falls outside the scope and purpose of scripture, which is rather theological, historical, and moral. Difficulty arises, however, when scripture makes theological or moral determinations on the basis of empirical presuppositions that cannot be maintained. As David Balch observes, “Our ecclesiastical debates do not concern simply Paul’s ethics and ours, but Paul’s science and ethics and our science and ethics.”[31] The author of First Timothy presumes that women are “weaker” than men and more easily deceived. This reflects the widespread Hellenistic view that men are rational and women passional.[32] For this reason, he does not permit women to hold authority over men. While some churches continue in both this descriptive and hermeneutic posture, contemporary understanding largely rejects the notion that women are by nature less capable of rational decision-making, and many Christians therefore regard the strictures on women exercising leadership as culturally bound. We may likewise regard the scriptural presupposition that same-sex love is sinful because it is unnatural as a culturally bound perspective.

                [1] Dan O. Via and Robert A. J. Gagnon, Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 88-9.

                [2] For a brief overview, see Jennifer A. Glancy, Slavery as a Moral Problem in the Early Church and Today (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011).

                [3] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: HarperCollins, 1996), 8.

                [4] Ibid., 9.

[5] James Giles, “A Theory of Love and Sexual Desire,” abstract, Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 24, no. 4 (1994): 339.

[6] Giles, 339.

[7] Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (Chicago: Open Court, 2001), 2.

[8] Ibid., 1.

[9] MacIntyre, 119-52.

[10] Ibid., 90.

                [11]See, e.g., J. A. Mangan, ‘Manufactured’ Masculinity: Making Imperial Manliness, Morality and Militarism (London: Routledge, 2014).

[12] Via and Gagnon, 90. It is interesting that Gagnon essentially takes the argument from orientation and re-purposes it to his own non-affirming ends.

[13] Ibid., 91.

[14] Paul K. Jewett, Who We Are: Our Dignity as Human: A New-Evangelical Theology, ed. Marguerite Shuster (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996), 339.

[15] Isolde Karle, “Beyond Distinct Gender Identities,” The Depth of the Human Person: A Multidisciplinary Approach, ed. Michael Welker (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2014), 335.

[16] Karle, 335.

[17] Pierre Bourdieu, Masculine Domination (Cambridge: Polity, 2002), 27-8.

[18] Karle, 335.

[19] Megan K. DeFranza, Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2015), 23-67.

[20] DeFranza, 173.

[21] Ibid.

[22] John R. Levison, “Adam and Eve in Romans 1.18–25 and the Greek Life of Adam and Eve,” New Testament Studies 50, no. 4 (October, 2004): 519.

[23] Cranfield, 126-7.

[24] Loader, 137.

[25] Sarah Ruden, Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in his own Time (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010), 49.

[26] Ruden, 49.

[27] Ibid., 60.

[28] Ibid., 66.

[29] Bernadette Brooten, Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 216.

[30] Charles H. Cosgrove, Appealing to Scripture in Moral Debate: Five Hermeneutical Rules (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2002), 116.

[31] David L. Balch, “Concluding Observations by the Editor, Including a Comparison of Christian with Jewish Interpretation,” in David L. Balch, ed., Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 300.

[32] Cosgrove, 144.


3 responses to “Thinking Morally about Same-Sex Love

  1. Without addressing the whole thing, I feel compelled to mention that I believe biology is not so easily discarded. The existence of intersex individuals is not a.normative aspect of human sexual diffentiation.

    To make an analogy, there are people born blind. That doesn’t mean that they are bad or problematic people. It is just part of disorder in life. These people do however suffer the lack of a natural good, sight, and the existence of people blind from birth does not mean that sight is a negliable part of human life. It would be absurd for a person who can see to “discover” later in life that he or she is really a blind person and should therefore wear eye covers and be treated as a blind person.

    No matter how much pain such a person’s sight may bring him or her, the charitable and reasonable thing to do is express compassion but help that person learn to embrace and love his or her ability to see.

    • Sorry for the long delay in replying. I definitely agree that the mere existence of intersex individuals is not, in itself, a refutation of sexual differentiation in the first place. However, the range of intersex conditions suggests that biological sex cannot clearly be reduced to any one genetic variable. There are a range of variables, some genetic and entirely beyond our control, such as chromosomes, and some medical and within our control, such as hormones. Indeed, I am coming more and more to the conclusion that if *gender* is biologically dependent, it is dependent upon hormones far more than on chromosomes (which, after all, few of us ever bother to confirm). The narrative in “Act Two” here is a case-in-point:

      As you know, this is a morally intuitive position for me. I recognize that I have more work to do to make my case. Thank you, as always, for your engagement.

      • As always, happy to engage. I would add that in the natural law tradition, which I think is highly reasonable, the measure is functionality of the genital organs. In Catholic canon law, a person is barred from marrying if he or she cannot engage in the marital act, which is defined as vaginal intercourse ending in ejaculation. So, applying that to gender, genital functionality determines sex. Chromosomal abnormalities are not inherently relevant. (Note that full ability to reproduce is not required but only to engage in intercourse). This is the standard of sexual diffentiation in the Catholic tradition and I agree with it. Now, I will admit that gender has many socially conditioned aspects. But I think basic sexual functionality has to be the standard of male and female. Ie, A woman with short hair and few curves is still a woman. Men and women, in my mind, are perfectly free to break stereotypes without that being a change in their gender. I worry that declaring gender based on hormones, feelings and social norms simply goes against the reality of genital functionality. Even people who suffer from gender dysphoria, who we can have compassion for, attempt to change their genital functionality through reassignment surgery. This, to me, is telling of what the true standard is. And if genital functionality is indeed the standard of sexual diffentiation, it is wrong to cause harm to healthy, functioning organs and sufferers need to be encouraged to love their bodies as God made them. That was long and convoluted; i am typing on my phone. I would be happy to clarify any of this and I wish you luck in your pondering.

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