Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church (Part 3)

Introduction

*This post is part of a series dealing with a very difficult topic. It contains some mature language and themes.

In part 3, I’ll be looking at the chapter written by Megan K. DeFranza who offers the second affirming view in the four part book, Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church. She received a PhD in religious studies from Marquette University and is “an emerging leader in the theological study of sex, gender, and sexuality.” (13) DeFranza is also an alumnus of Toccoa Falls College.

Approach to the Topic

DeFranza begins by detailing her own journey with this debate, writing, “I never would have anticipated writing a chapter arguing for a more inclusive theology of Christian marriage in a volume of this kind – not while attending [Toccoa Falls College], or after finishing my master’s work at an evangelical seminary, or my doctoral studies in theology, not even after having completed by dissertation on the complexity of biological sex/gender differences.” (69)

“It was my growing awareness of the complexity of biological sex development that opened my mind to consider the possibility that I could be missing something. I learned that not all people are fully or clearly male or female. While most humans seem to be clearly sexed, there is a significant minority for whom being male and female is not obvious or uncomplicated. Intersex persons with Differences of Sex Development (DSDs; historically, “hermaphrodites”) have bodies with both male and female physical features. Approximately 1 out of every 2500 live births is intersex.”

DeFranza, 69-70

She writes that ancient Christians and Jews were quite familiar with people whose bodies did not easily fit into either a male or female category. In Matthew 19:12 Jesus speaks of eunuchs, saying some have been so from birth, some were made so by others, and some have made themselves so for the kingdom of heaven. DeFranza details her re-examination of Genesis 1 observing, “this was not a comprehensive account of all God’s good creation. For example, amphibians are not named in the narrative.” (70)

She notes that some people argue humans who do not fit easily into one sex category or the other are viewed as a result of the fall. Yet we never hear that argument made about frogs which are also not mentioned. (71) Many read Genesis 1 as representing the idealized male and female. But “when I read Genesis in the context of the whole Bible, at the beginning of a story that later welcomed those who did not fit into either of these categories (such as eunuchs from birth), I began to see space opening up between the two, between male and female, space for others.” (71)

Gender, Sex, and Ethics

From here, DeFranza moves into examining assumptions about sex and gender and how they affect debates surrounding sexual ethics. She seeks to better understand ancient views on sexuality “in order to better understand biblical instruction.” (72)

DeFranza writes that in the time of Paul, 1 in 5 persons in Rome was a slave, and slaves were often used for sex in the ancient world; Eunuchs were especially desired for this purpose. “Many ancient men lusted after the ‘soft,’ effeminate bodies of these castrated males because androgynous features were considered by many to be more alluring than feminine beauty.” (72) She claims, “Paul would have been concerned to address the rampant sexual abuse which affected many in the early church.” (73)

Where many see I Corinthians 6:9 and I Timothy 1:9-10 condemn same-sex sexuality in general, DeFranza argues the texts may be referring to the sexual abuse rampant in the ancient culture. The Greek words “arsenokoitai” and “malakoi” are of particular interest, she notes. “This combination of terms is never used in Greek literature before Paul as a way of speaking about same-sex sex.” (73) The term “malakoi” literally means “the soft ones” but sometimes it is translated as “effeminate.” (73) From here, DeFranza moves to examining masculinity and femininity in ancient culture. She notes it was “considered shameful for a man to be penetrated by another man.” (74) Philo, a first century contemporary of Paul, writes about the practice of pederasty (sexual use of boys by adult men) as a violation of Mosaic law. However, the 21st century reader would find Philo’s reasoning for the violation rather strange.

“Philo worried that such a boy would suffer ‘the affliction of being treated like women…being turned into a man-woman who adulterates the precious coinage of his nature.” (italics mine) Philo believed the adult shares in the blame since he proved to be a “guide and teacher of those greatest of all evils, unmanliness and…effeminacy.”

DeFranza, 74

DeFranza references two Old Testament stories in which men are threatened with being raped. In Genesis 19, Lot thinks it best to send his virgin daughters to be gang-raped by the men of Sodom rather than allow his male guest to be defiled. In Judges 19, a traveler finds refuge in a foreign town. But during the night, a mob of men demand he come out and have sex with them. Rather than “be treated as a women,” he sends to the mob his female servant to be raped all night until she is found dead on the doorstep the next morning. DeFranza writes, “these ancient patriarchal values feel far from Christian ethical sensibilities today.” (75)

*[Last semester, I wrote an essay examining a feminist reading of this passage which may be of interest]

Looking at the Language

DeFranza further examines the Greek words “malakoi” and “arsenokoitai.” There is debate about whether these words form a word-pair wherein the passive (penetrated) is the malakoi, and the active (penetrator) is the arsenokoitai in male same-sex sexual acts. DeFranza argues, the one participant is “feminized and softened because he was treated like a woman.” (77) Some “scholars have argued for a more narrow interpretation – suggesting the “soft ones” could be prepubescent boys in pederastic relationships with their mentors – a common practice among ancient Greeks but criticized by Romans, Christians, and Jews.” (77) DeFranza highlights the 2011 rendering of the NIV, “men who have sex with men.” She deems this translation unfortunate because it “suggests adult behavior, whereas the Greek does not specify age.” (77) One would need to read the text as only condemning abusive, (older males with younger males) sexual activity in order to claim it is not condemning same sex actions between consenting adults.

After studying the book of Romans, DeFranza does not find the “clear-cut universal condemnation of all same-sex relations that [she] had expected.” (86) According to her reading, “the passage is meant to describe the depravity of those who have rejected God, not faithful gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians seeking to solemnize their relationships with the vows of Christian marriage.” (86)

“Contemporary readers will recognize the importance of speaking against the vices of decadence, lack of self-control, laziness, and sexual excess associated with (malakoi), but modern Christians should reject the cultural packaging which summarized these evils as femininity or effeminacy.” (80)

A “Biblical” View of Marriage?

Next, the author moves from linguistic study to examining what maleness and femaleness meant in the biblical context. She will argue that 21st century marriage as defined by the Christian church looks incredible different than what is prescribed in the Bible. She will point to Paul’s writings, the old testament, as well as church fathers to make this case. If we have rightfully revised our view on maleness and femaleness in the marriage relationship once, she argues, perhaps we have the space to do it again. This time, instead of revising the Christian view to see women as equals, we should revise it to see marriage as a union which can be shared by gay couples.

DeFranza observes, “the unanimous picture of marriage in the Bible is heterosexual…the consistent witness of marriage is…heterosexual.” (87) She also notes the covenant between husband and wife as the metaphor employed by the prophets to illustrate the relationship of God and his people. However, she goes on in an attempt to show that Biblical marriage is consistently patriarchal, and this is why it works as a metaphor for God and his people, as well as Christ and the church. In this view of marriage, the one half is clearly dominant and superior. She points to John Calvin’s assertion 1500 years after Paul that women are “by nature…formed to obey.” (89) DeFranza writes that Christians are content leaving slavery and monarchy in the past “despite their foundation in scripture” and argues that the metaphor of marriage between unequal partners “does not reflect the biblical teaching that men and women are equally made in the image of God.” (89)

DeFranza believes, “arguments from first century understandings of nature are hardly sufficient to ground Christian sexual ethics.” (82) She warns against the implications of referring generally to what is natural, “more often that not, what we find ‘in nature’ are the social conventions of our own context…despite the obvious condemnation of lame same-sex relations in this passage [Romans 1] some scholars still do not believe that all same-sex relationships are therefore censured.” (83-84) DeFranza argues we have revised marriage from ancient patterns and further, that we ought to do so again to “better honor the humanity of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people.” (90)

“Contemporary Christian marriage is not biblical marriage of the old or new testament.” DeFranza thinks an affirming view of same sex marriage can be grounded in a Christian theology of marriage. Her argument is that the church’s current view of marriage (two equal partners) is not the biblical view of marriage, and that this is an addition to the biblical patriarchal view. She advocates for an understanding of marriage which alongside traditional theology “recognizes that humans are made for communion and that our sexuality brings us into particular relationships which, because of sin, need to be governed by public vows (96),” but which also includes gay marriage under the umbrella of what faithful marriage can look like.

Summing Up

DeFranza ends her chapter with a look towards the past and the fences with rough splinters which have divided the church. “Christians have learned to agree to disagree over other weighty moral concerns: just war vs pacifism, women’s ordination, infant vs believer’s baptism…we are finding ways to debate and disagree without adding the pain of persecution, or accusing our opponents of abandoning the faith, or rejecting the authority of the Bible.” (100) She points out that Protestants no longer drown one another over baptismal practices as they did in the 1500s. These fences, she writes have gradually been torn down, and fellowship has been restored across the dividing lines. Some fences still stand, though they are worn smoother as the “painful splinters on these rough beams have been worn smooth. Other beams have fallen and not been replaced.” (101) DeFranza hopes, “we will continue to listen to one another, that we will remain open to the leading of the Holy Spirit,” and that more churches will prove welcoming to gay Christians, both celibate and who seek marriage union.

Strengths and Weaknesses

  • Strengths

The arguments outlined in this chapter rest on two pillars: (1) the Greek is hard to interpret (we may have gotten it wrong) and (2) Christian marriage now looks very different than it did when scripture was authored. The second argument is the strongest. DeFranza makes brief mention of Calvin’s low view of women “by nature formed to obey.” And she really spares him and many other church fathers here. Origin, Augustine, Luther, Chrysostom, and plenty more had really bad views of women which make us cringe today. It seems clear the views of marriage expressed through the ages, from Paul’s day to Martin Luther, have needed to be updated regarding the status of women. DeFranza’s argument for affirming gay marriage finds its most force here, in arguing for another revision to a Christian theology of marriage.

  • Weaknesses

DeFranza’s argument relies, at least in part, on reading Paul’s writing in a way that does not condemn homosexuality between consenting males. There are many scholars who argue that Paul was fully aware of not only abusive older/younger same sex relationships, but also those between consenting males – and he was condemning both. It seems that to read the texts in way that does not condemn same-sex sexual activity requires hermeneutical acrobatics. Perhaps it is best to trust those who have done the work of giving us our English translations where the language does not seem overly ambiguous. While DeFranza may be able to make a case reading in the Greek, most English readers will not be able to enter the discussion at that level and are left wondering whom to trust.

*more (rather scathing) critiques are leveled in this article.

Final Thoughts

By DeFranza’s own account, it was not until after she received her third academic degree that she changed her mind on this issue. It’s hard for me to see, given the evidence outlined, how the layperson might be persuaded (most of us never write a dissertation on biological sex/gender difference). With that said, I do think many lay readers fail to consider what the implications of our current views of marriage might be when we consider just how different they are than those of Paul’s day. We have moved away from a patriarchal view, where the male in superior in all manners and dominates his spouse. It is alarming to me that the church fathers who have developed so much of our theology and understanding of other teachings held degrading views of women and marriage which make us cringe and squirm. This is why we need theologians in every age, to do the work of helping us work out our salvation, a task which is not easy and where the answers are not obvious.


Published by javenbear

Javen Bear is 23 years old and lives with his beautiful wife Aleisha in Seneca, South Carolina. He’s a senior at Toccoa Falls College where he studies mass-media communication and co-hosts The Abstract Podcast. Javen’s super-power, if he had one, would be the ability to press pause on the world and catch up on reading. He enjoys fly-fishing, going to the theatre, and always uses Oxford commas.

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