A Comment on Robert Gagnon's 'The Bible and Homosexual Practice'

A Comment on
'The Bible and Homosexual Practice' by Robert Gagnon

A paragraph from
‘The Church of England and Homosexuality’ in
Terry Brown (ed.), Other Voices, Other Worlds: Global Church Speaks Out on Homosexuality(London: Darton Longman and Todd, 2006),
written in 2005 by David Atkinson

One of the most substantial and influential conservative contributions to current debate comes from Robert Gagnon. The Bible and Homosexual Practice is an exhaustive exegetical study, but unfortunately proclaims a certainty which I do not believe his argument supports. In his defence of traditional exegesis, Gagnon argues from Genesis 1:26–27 that ‘the fullness of God’s image comes together in the union of male and female in marriage.’[1] But this claims too much: it does not give much space for single people – or for our unmarried Lord himself.
Gagnon further wishes to link being made in the divine image with ‘procreative purpose’ (Genesis 1:28) but Jesus does not make any reference to Genesis 1:28 in his quotation from Genesis 1:26–27 recorded in Matthew 19. There is something about the importance of being in the divine image that cannot be reduced to procreative capacity. Compared with the Old Testament, in which procreation was an essential feature of the self-understanding of the people of God, the Gospels show little interest in procreation. And there are important sexual dimensions to the celibate life to which Gagnon does not refer at all.
Gagnon further argues that anatomical complementarity of male penis and female vagina itself demonstrates the normativeness of heterosexuality, that same-sex intercourse therefore violates nature, and that this must underlie St Paul’s argument. But nowhere does St Paul talk about anatomy and Gagnon’s argument at this point is derived not from exegesis but from his own assumption of what is ‘natural’.[2] In his concentration on anatomy and on the morality of sexual actions without reference to their context in a relationship, Gagnon gives no acknowledgement of the fact that, to some extent at least, context determines the moral value of actions.[3] This is universally accepted in the heterosexual world, where married sexual love is recognised as wholly different in meaning from rape.
One of my primary difficulties with Gagnon’s lengthy thesis is that the entire focus is on the morality of actions separated from any consideration of the contexts that give them meaning. To abstract behaviour from the whole context of a person’s motivation, relationships and moral vision fails to do justice to the biblical emphasis on ‘the heart’. It concentrates only on discrete acts, not the way those actions are woven into a person’s character and quest for moral values. It leads to a morality of rules, rather than to a personal morality of allegiance to the covenant Lord.

[1] Gagnon R, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001),
page 58
[2] If the sexual use of the male penis only belongs with the female vagina, then even within heterosexual marriage any manual, oral or anal sexual behaviour must be ruled out. Many Christians may well wish to say that it should, but this fact has not been the subject of debate which divides the church. Most people leave such matters to private conscience. ‘Anatomy’ would also make clear that the female breast is for giving milk, but even the Scriptures (Song of Songs) recognise an acceptable ‘sexual use’ of the breast for pleasure. Gagnon does not seem to have much place for the use of the body for pleasure.
[3] See, for example, the many Protestant critiques of Humanae Vitae for its concentration on sexual actions rather than on the context of a relationship.

The Rt Rev David Atkinson is Bishop of Thetford. For a response to this paragraph by Robert Gagnon, 'Going in the Wrong Direction', click here.

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