Saturday, September 09, 2006

"Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality" by Jack Rogers -- A Book Review

Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality by Jack Rogers (Louisville:Westminster-John Knox, 2006, 126 pages, plus endnotes)

A Review by Richard Kew

I no longer take the Episcopal News Service very seriously, but the other week as they touted Jack Rogers' book, Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality, I decided I ought to read it. Intellectual honesty demands that we take serious the viewpoints of those with whom we disagree with a view to, perhaps, changing our minds. Besides, it was high time I took another look at what is being said by those whose take on human sexuality is different from my own.

Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality promised to be interesting because it is not often that a former professor of an evangelical seminary gets endorsements from Gene Robinson and the Moderator of the Metropolitan Community Church! (Rogers taught at both Fuller Seminary and San Francisco Theological Seminary). Jack Rogers has been a leader in the Presbyterian Church (USA)for many years, and was at one point Moderator. He has a sterling evangelical pedigree, but has been in trouble in the past for thinking outside the box. I expected to be challenged, and I was.

I spent the Labor Day weekend grappling with Rogers, learning much and asking fundamental questions of myself and my beliefs. Unlike so much that I have read on the permitting side of the sexuality issue, Rogers seriously attempts ground all that he says in a scholarly use of the Scriptures and a biblical worldview.

Because the book maintains a relatively eirenic tone, there were parts I thoroughly enjoyed, and especially good is his chapter on interpreting the Bible during controversial times. This, coupled with the insights that he give into the development of theology over the past couple of centuries, makes the book of value regardless of the debate over sexuality in which we are all involved. While Rogers' jumping off point is the historic and confessional documents of Presbyterianism, there are many points of contact with mainstream Anglicanism. Yet the book is doggedly Americo-centric and makes absolutely no reference to the wider church in both space and history.

Rogers rightly complains that conservatives are often selective in the way they use information and Scripture, and this is something that needs to be address with great seriousness. But the finger also points back at Rogers because he uses his own flavor of selectivenes as he attempts to promote the theology and agenda to which he now adheres. Perhaps given the emotive nature of this presenting issue, it is impossible for anyone to come at it without seeming to grind their own axe.

But let me get to the substance of the book. Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality is partly Dr. Rogers story of his own journey from the exclusion to the inclusion side of the equation when it comes to the role of openly homosexual people in the life of the church. He uses what I would describe as his own eccentric doctrine of theological development to give legitimacy to his arguments.

In summarizing he writes, "The best methods of interpretation, from the Reformation on down through today, call upon us to interpret the Scripture through the lens of Jesus Christ's life and ministry" (Page 126). The case he makes is an attempt to demonstrate that it is not an unreasonable leap from that starting point to the point where we accept that "using this method, we see clearly that Jesus and the Bible, properly understood, do not condemn people who are homosexual. In church governance, our confessions and the Book of Order embody a trajectory of ever-greater inclusiveness. To bar gay and lesbian people from ordination and marriage is a violation of those fundamental principles of our faith" (Page 126).

It is Rogers' thesis that as we look back over the history of the Christian faith during the last couple of hundred years, we see a process of theological modification going on that has increasingly opened the doors to minorities and the excluded. He demonstrates that not long ago the churches in the United States not only accepted slavery and racial segretation, but attempted to justify it from the Scriptures. More recently the same can is true of the role and place of women in the church and society.

If, he argues, we did the right thing modifying our theology to correct these injustices, then should we not now apply the same principles when it comes to another excluded group -- those who are defined and who would define themselves as homosexual?

He points out that Christians have, in order to be pastoral, modified their application of what Scripture teaches about marriage and remarriage, so why cling to old prejudices regarding those who are of a homosexual orientation and wish to live in a faithful relationship with a lifelong partner? He believes this entirely appropriate and writes, "Jesus did not set forth immutable laws to break people. Rather, he set forth an ideal toward which we all should strive -- lifelong faithfulness in married relationships. That ideal could apply to gay or lesbian couples as well as to heterosexual couples" (Page 44).

There is little doubt that doctrine develops, and also that since the beginning each generation (or sub-grouping) has fallen into the temptation of reading the bible through its own culturally-conditioned set of presuppositions and prejudices. This means that there is a steady development of Christian doctrine, as by a trial and error approach we sift what God is saying within the context of changing circumstances, then making course corrections on that basis. The truth is that it sometimes takes centuries to get things right, while at the same time shaped by the cultures in which we live we ourselves read fresh errors and misperceptions into the text.

Neither does doctrinal development proceed in anything approaching a straight line evolution in one direction or another, as Jack Rogers would like us to believe. Ideas and theology develop within the context of a culture, being shaped by it, but also they seem to move forward in a particular direction, then they back up, then they begin to identify nuances or partial mistakes that need to be taken into account, and so forth. For example, the modernists who seemed to be carrying all before them in the early part of the 20th Century on both sides of the Atlantic would have laughed you to scorn if you had said in the latter part of that century their ideas would wane and give way to an evangelical resurgence of both numbers and academic theology.

So enamored is Rogers by his theory of development that he is unwilling to critique the manner in which the culture shapes the Christian churches, demanding that they conform to this image. He seems to assume that the radical individualism and emerging sexuality of our times do not require justification when measured against Scripture (however it is handled), and the development of doctrine in the church.

There is, for example, an uncritical acceptance of the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association's consideration that homosexuality bears none of the marks of a disorder. The only take that he has in opposition to the APAs is that of Dr. James Dobson, which is hardly representative of a larger swathe of discomfort with these particular decisions. While the APAs may reflect a certain segment of their professions at this moment, there is no reason to believe those in these professions who disagree with the professional organizations' stance will always be on the outs as research continues and new ideas emerge.

Neither do I find Rogers' handling of the biblical materials concerning homosexuality convincing. Firstly, he merely deals with a handful of "purple passages" that either address, or are purported to address homosexuality, and secondly, he tends to dismiss strong cases that are made from an intense study of the Scriptures on a very flimsey basis.

A clear example of this is that early in the book he questions Scottish Common Sense philosophy that he rightly believes shaped American thinking and theology from the 18th Century onward. When he gets to addressing what Scripture teaches he dismisses Robert Gagnon's extraordinary thorough critique of the Scriptural text, The Bible and Homosexual Pracice, as "a classic example of the misuse of natural law in theology" (Page 81). Those from St. Augustine to Karl Barth knew little of Scottish Common Sense philosophy...

It is here, I find, that Rogers flies in the face of his stated principle that Scripture should be read as a whole without individualized proof-texting. He quotes Richard Hays as saying, "The Bible hardly ever discusses homosexual behavior" (Page 69), but from the outset Scripture presents male and female as complimentary genders to one another, together reflecting the image of the God who reveals himself.

Maybe contemporary perceptions of what it means to be homosexual are somewhat different than those of biblical times, as Rogers makes clear, but present perceptions do not justify a radical decontruction of sexual morality as found in Scripture. Furthermore, while Scripture as a whole raises significant questions about the morality of slavery, segregation, and the subordination of women, it is extremely difficult to say the same of homosexuality within the wider context of biblical morality as understood by the church catholic and historic Judaism.

When I was at high school I regularly receive back papers I had written which had emblazoned along the top in red ink the words "Good Effort," then when you looked at the grade put beside these words it was less than stellar! I would say the same of Rogers' book. It is a good effort, a nice try, but he needs to do a lot more with it if the case he makes is even to begin to start holding water. I learned a lot from it, was made more sensitive, but the case he makes was far too weak to change my mind regarding the nature and priority of biblical sexual morality against which homosexuality should be measured.

Where I am in agreement with him is that we in the churches have little to be proud of in the way in which we have handled gay and lesbian Christians. There has been tremendous pastoral insensitivity, probably rooted in prejudice, for which we need to seek forgiveness. Yet coming as you are into a healing community of Christians does not mean you should stay as you are when confronted with the radically transforming power of the Cross -- whatever your identity when you enter the church. This is the position of Archbishop Rowan Williams, and I believe it holds water when measured against the Scriptures as a whole within the context of the church as a whole.

5 comments:

Tony Seel said...

He quotes Richard Hays as saying, "The Bible hardly ever discusses homosexual behavior" (Page 69)

Hays also says that Scripture is uniformly critical of homosexual behavior.

Fr Sullivan said...

Does Hayes say anything about the biblical moral standard of homosexuals (or heterosexuals) in committed relationships?

Anonymous said...

"the radically transforming power of the Cross"

... does not change the sexuality God gives at birth and confirms later in life-- even when the world is and remains a largely homophobic place.

I think anyone who know His Grace, Archbishop Rowan well knows that he is deeply troubled by the state of the Anglican Communion. "The radically transforming power of the Cross" is meant to change those who, like Jack Rogers, grow up in God's grace, grace greater than our sin (to quote a good ole hymn).

The pre-Cantuar scholar Williams knows the difference between biblical morality and biblical holiness. The latter may be debated; the former is harder to quantify, shall we say, though the Church Universal (not God) has always had a moral word to say throughout Her history... but that morality does not pass muster today.

Jack R may need to revise (in the British sense and the American sense) but Kew needs to be touched by "the radically transforming power of the Cross" in my humble opinion.

Tyler said...

To anonymous:

regarding the 'sexuality God gives us at birth and confirms later in life'

Where do you get the idea that homosexuality is God given? Or even at birth? This brings in the whole discussion of nature or nurture. As of my knowledge to date the verdict is still out as to whether nature or nurture is the result of homosexuality. If anything it is leaning towards nurture.

If that is the case then, then 'God' does not give homosexual tendencies at birth. Just like he does not give other sexual tendencies at birth (child sexuality, polygamy, bestiality, etc). When you say that 'God gives them' that leaves the door open for others to say that 'God gives them' their inclinations. It is the only next logical conclusion.

Anonymous said...

To anonymous:

regarding the 'sexuality God gives us at birth and confirms later in life'

Where do you get the idea that homosexuality is God given? Or even at birth? This brings in the whole discussion of nature or nurture. As of my knowledge to date the verdict is still out as to whether nature or nurture is the result of homosexuality. If anything it is leaning towards nurture.

If that is the case then, then 'God' does not give homosexual tendencies at birth. Just like he does not give other sexual tendencies at birth (child sexuality, polygamy, bestiality, etc). When you say that 'God gives them' that leaves the door open for others to say that 'God gives them' their inclinations. It is the only next logical conclusion.