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Web Exclusive: Letter to the Editor: Prof. Van Leeuwen’s response

Dear Editor,

Ben Wallis is to be commended for his willingness (in the Sept. 15 Waltonian) to discuss an issue many of us would rather simply avoid — namely, whether or not churches should support monogamous same-sex unions. However, on three issues I believe a deeper understanding is necessary. Those three issues are as follow:

1) On the matter of a redemptive-movement hermenuetic being equally applicable to the issues of slavery, gender roles and homosexual practice, a close reading of the relevant N.T. passages shows that while those concerning slavery and gender relations go in a less restrictive direction than the customs of the surrounding Greco-Roman culture, those on homosexuality consistently point in an emphatically more restrictive direction than the accepted sexual practices of the day. Furthermore, as Wilson Webb points out in his balanced and non-polemical volume Slaves, Women And Homosexuals (InterVarsity Press, 2002, pp. 250-51):

“The biblical texts not only hold an aversion to [certain features associated with homosexual practice] (e.g., rape, pederasty), they appear to voice a concern about the more basic or core issue of same-gender sexual acts themselves …A comparison of homosexuality with other sexual-intercourse prohibitions in Scriptue reveals that the lack of covenant or the lack of equal-partner status is simply not a substantive issue. The core issue in the Levitical code appears to be one of appropriate sexual boundaries. For example, the incest laws are primarily arranged around crossing the boundary of parent and child. Similarly, the bestiality laws are interested in setting seuxal boundaries between humans and animals.

Along these structural lines, the homosexual prohibitions celebrate the good value of intercourse between male and female, yet disallow intercourse between members of the same sex … I must applaud [Webb continues] recent studies that have shown unequal-status and active/passive aspects to be a culturally sustained component of an ancient world portrait of homosexuality. But interjecting equal-status or covenant into the equation fails to sidestep the problem. It amounts to a highly reductionistic reading of the biblical texts. The deepest issue for the biblical authors was the breaking of sexual boundaries between male and female.”

2) Biblical feminists do see Gal.3:28 as a key text for showing that all “are one in Christ Jesus,” and thus should be welcomed into the Christian fellowship along with anyone else who can affirm the historic beliefs of the church (as expressed, for example, in the Apostles’ Creed). But it does not follow from this that all who are ‘welcomed’ are to be ‘affirmed’ in their lifestyles. See for example theologian Stanley Grenz’ careful and compassionate analysis, Welcoming But Not Affirming: An Evangelical Response to Homosexuality (Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).

The church, of course, is often shamelessly inconsistent on such matters : the Scriptures have much more to say about the sanctity of marriage and the scandal of divorce than they do about what we today call homosexuality ( a term, by the way, that was only coined in the 19th century). Yet the fact that divorce rates among self-styled born-again Christians are as high as those of the U.S. population at large doesn’t seem to be on any fundamentalist preachers’ radar screens. As Duke University chaplain Will Willimon once famously observed, “We cannot blame gays and lesbians for the failure of heterosexuals to keep their promises.” True, and neither can we blame alcoholics (who have a ‘loving’ relationship with the bottle) or gossips (who ‘love’ the power that comes from spreading slander). The point is that what we are convinced we ‘love’ does not settle ANY of our ethical issues, because our feelings are notoriously adept at helping us to rationalize what may be bad for us, for God’s people, and for the social fabric at large. Thus, over against casual attitudes to heterosexual fornication, divorce, and homosexual practice, the organization Christians for Biblical Equality (whose national convention was held at Eastern this past summer) affirms “heterosexual monogamy and celibate singleness as the patterns God has laid down for our lives.” Strong words, which probably leave few of us with any stones to throw.

3) Regarding the assertion that “science also teaches us that some people are born with a homosexual orientation,” Wallis (along with too many church study commissions on homosexuality) is relying on bad science journalism, of which there is plenty out there. I would be happy to have him in my Psychology of Gender class next semester to help him become a more responsible reader of the literature, but for starters let me point out two glaring problems with his assertion.

The first is that there is no clear and unanimous agreement in the scientific community regarding the theoretical definition of homosexuality, and little consistency from study to study regarding the operational definitions used to measure it. The authors of the excellent University of Chicago survey, Sex in America (who are hardly trying to be apologists for a biblical world view) point out that ‘both those who have a nature [i.e. biological] and well as a nurture [i.e. environmental] point of view will be required to identify more precisely what homosexuality is. Is it attraction, behavior, fantasy, or self-identity that these theories predict, or is it some combination of the four? And is the combination the same in women and men? These debates have enough politics in them to assure that no single study will settle the issue.”

Secondly, if there is no clear agreement on the appropriate definition of homosexuality, then we are hardly in a position to settle the question of its causality. But even if it is broadly defined in terms of mere self-identity, the biological evidence is highly equivocal.

Neither direct genetic research on X-linkage (the so called ‘gaygene’) nor indirect, behavior-genetic research on twins, nor studies of prenatal and postnatal hormone history have established that homosexuality operates in a simple biological fashion like eye-color, via dominant and recessive genes. Nor does same-sex attraction and behavior is humans operate like prenatal/postnatal hormonal experiments done with animals (who often can be seen to engage in same-sex mating behaviors after perinatal hormonal interference of various kinds). Animals are on a much tigher genetic and hormonal ‘leash’ than humans, whose large and convoluted cerebral cortex given them the behavioral flexiblity to learn and adapt to a great variety of environmental challenges. In terms of a Christian world view, if this were not so, humans could hardly carry out the cultural mandate to ‘subdue the earth.’

Biologist William Byne, although politically supportive of gay rights, candidly admitted in a Scientific Americanarticle a few years ago that “most of the links in the chain of reasoning from biology to sexual orientation and public policy do not hold up under scrutiny.”

But very significantly, he then goes on to assert that “at the political level, a requirement that an unconventional trait be inborn or immutable is an inhuman criterion for a society to use in deciding which of its non-conformists it will grant tolerance. Even if homosexuality were entirely a matter of choice, attempts to extirpate it by social and criminal sanctions devalue basic human freedoms and diversity.” In other words, for many supporters of the gay lifestyle, causality is irrelevant, because the final court of appeal is s really ethical individualism. Wallis does not quite go this far, but as I noted in point # 2 above, his apparent conviction that “all you need is love” comes pretty close. We need a much more nuanced and critical conversation on same-gender attractions and their implications for the church than Mr. Wallis has given us.

Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen

Professor of Psychology and Philosophy

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