James Brownson – Bible, Gender, Sexuality [Feature Review]

June 21, 2013


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Page 3: James Brownson – Bible, Gender, Sexuality


One interesting section sees him pointing towards a lack of “eschatological balance” among some women in early communities that led to their chastisement (certainly in patriarchal terms) in the NT. With the announcement of the beginning of a new kingdom (where there would be no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female), there were those that wanted to behave as if it was already fully here. Brownson explains, “[t]he church must not assume that it has passed completely from this world into the age to come. It must not dissolve the “already/not yet” tension and assume that the structures of this world are completely done away with” (77). Ironically, we make the inverse mistake when we look to the gospels and the early church and expect them to reflect the perfect order of the new creation.

Brownson’s account of the “one-flesh” concept in scripture concludes that the one-flesh bond is primarily about kinship. It includes sexual union but is much more than it. Furthermore, he asserts, discussion in the bible about this kinship bond takes place without explicit concern for procreation – it is the unitive meaning of marriage that is more fundamental than the procreative. That scripture assumes male-female relationships, that they are normal in biblical times, does not necessarily make them normative.

His account of the teaching on procreation in scripture begins with an understanding that the call to “be fruitful and multiply” is a blessing rather than a command. His survey of passages relating to procreation leads him to conclude that while he reads a consistent teaching that procreation belongs in marriage, he doesn’t find the same requirement that marriage must involve procreation. Procreation of course is not irrelevant or incidental to marriage, but it is not essential.

Finally in this section Brownson explores teaching on celibacy – the recommended path suggested by traditionalists to those who find themselves with same-sex attraction (whether or not they recognise “orientation”). He suggests that this traditionalist directive runs against Paul’s teaching on celibacy, urging those (the majority) who cannot exercise self-control, those who are not gifted in this way, to marry. Jesus commends those who have “made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of God”, but surely this implies that many are not called to lives of singleness. Is it possible that everyone who is born with a same-sex orientation is blessed with this unusual self-control?

With this groundwork complete, Brownson moves through an extensive exposition of what he calls the “boundary language” in Romans 1:24-27. Moving through four moral categories of lust/desire, purity/impurity, honour/shame, and nature, he uses the passage as the platform to take us from the very broad and deep underlying moral themes he has been developing thus far into an engagement with some more specific moral injunctions surrounding sexuality. The passage is a useful stage in part because of how central it is to traditionalist arguments, and in part because it covers a lot of different ethical entry points, but also because of the undeniable negative intensity of Paul’s language. However as before, Brownson forces us to slow down and carefully work through what exactly it is that Paul is responding to and what underlying moral logic we might then take forward to our own questions today.

Brownson’s treatment of and commentary of lust is perhaps most central to his argument about this passage. His definition of lust as sin is expansive, describing it as selfish and unrestrained desire, rooted in idolatry. It is much more subtle than simple sexual desire, which Brownson notes is not wrong itself – in fact sexual desire is described positively in scripture. He summarises, “[t]he central problem with lust in Romans 1 is that it is an expression of idolatry in a specific sense: lust involves serving one’s own self-seeking desires rather than worshipping the one true God” (153). He makes the crucial observation that in the contemporary debate, a common position is to declare same-sex orientation and desire not as sinful, but only same-sex erotic behaviour. But when considering how strongly the New Testament asserts that our desire and inclinations are sinful even if we don’t act on them (“if your eye causes you to sin”), this moral boundary distinguishing between inclination and behaviour immediately seems untenable.

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