Changing our Mind

I’m reading Gushee’s book Changing our Mind.1 While reading, I posted a short quote on Facebook, which provoked interesting discussion, and happily no vitriol. One of the points made there, which was also made by Gushee’s main critic back in 2015 when the book was new, is that Gushee does not do serious exegesis on the key passages. I plan to think about that critique in this post. This post is not a careful presentation and analysis of Gushee’s writing, rather it summarises what he seems to me to be saying – that is, I may have got him wrong, or gone beyond what he says, but this is how his argument looked as I read it.2

The first part of the book (roughly half), after setting the scene, deals with the biblical texts and arguments most often cited in support of the traditional Christian ethical position on LGBTQ sexuality. As I understand it, Gushee is making the point that all of the passages that may directly address the issue are either seriously debatable (the story of Sodom, or what the terms malakos and arsenokoitos referred to exactly) or are not directly addressing our questions but are concerned to make other points (Romans 1).

On Romans 1 it seems to me that Gushee follows Loader in agreeing that Paul understood sex between partners of the same biological gender as abhorrently unnatural. This indeed tells us Paul’s attitudes, but the text does not address our questions, and aspects of sex are mentioned as illustrations rather than the main point. To me this implies that Paul is not teaching about sexual ethics here.3 Now, when we affirm Scripture as authority we are careful not to claim that everything the Bible seems to say is authoritative (thus when it is apparently describing the sun orbiting the earth, or a flat earth with corners, these are not things that Scripture is teaching and so are not authoritative). The fact (assuming with Loader, and I think Gushee, that it is a fact) that Paul perceived sex between same gender partners as disgusting and unnatural, and thus sinful, is not binding on us if this was not what Paul and the Holy Spirit was ‘teaching’ here – and I do not think it was the point of his teaching here.

Because these direct passages are weak (debatable, difficult to translate with confidence, or talking about something else), and certainly not addressing our questions, the main weight of the traditional case must rest on the doctrine of marriage derived (by both Jesus and Paul as well as us today) primarily from Gen 1 and 2. But these passages also are not concerned with the ethics of stable covenanted sexual relationships between homosexual partners. (Unlike the shepherd in Jesus’ parable their interest is in the 95%4 and not in the others.)

Thus the biblical case for claiming that ONLY heterosex is ethically acceptable under any circumstances (the traditional position)5 is weaker than most of us (e.g. Gushee, me, and probably you) assumed.

The conclusion from this is that this set of issues and questions around sex and sexuality cannot be answered responsibly by an appeal to our exegesis of a small set of texts – almost however we understand them after careful exegesis, they simply will not respond to our 21st C questions. We are therefore required to engage in some deeper and broader hermeneutics – as we have had to do consciously or unconsciously on many other issues. Gushee has not stopped being an evangelical ethicist who writes about and believes passionately in marriage as a lifelong covenant, though he has stopped believing that such a lifelong covenant ought necessarily to be restricted only to heterosexual couples.

  1. I was given a copy by friends who hope it will help me change mine. It is the 2017 edition – though the blog posts on which the book is based appeared first in 2014 and the main response to the book dates from that time. Gushee, David P. Changing Our Mind: Definitive 3rd Edition of the Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians with Response to Critics. Canton, MI: Read the Spirit Books, 2017. []
  2. That is do not hold Gushee responsible for anything I say, and do not complain too much if I have not reproduced his thought closely enough. []
  3. Note this approach is not the same as the minority who claim that this passage does not express Paul’s own thought but rather the approach he is criticising – because that IS a minority position it does not seem helpful to depend upon it. []
  4. In this case, unlike Jesus’ sheep, it is far more than 1 in a 100. []
  5. NB even this heterosexual expression is only acceptable within the stable lifelong covenant relationship we call marriage. []