David Gushee’s Brave New Biblical Sexual Ethics

November 10, 2014

The evangelical theologian David Gushee, who teaches at Mercer University, made a splash recently with a Washington Post op-ed summarizing the grounds for a change of his mind on Christian sexual ethics, particularly with a view to how the church should reach out to persons with same-sex attraction and those in same-sex relationships. Gushee declares that he now “stands in solidarity with the LGBT community,” which for him means that Christians now “need to reconsider the entire body of biblical interpretation and tradition related to this issue.” In short, Gushee has now concluded that there is no scriptural foundation for treating homosexual acts as morally wrong. Same-sex-attracted persons, therefore, should be welcomed in the church with “full acceptance” on terms that respect and honor their desires and deeds.

Because I am a Catholic, not an evangelical, and because I am a political theorist and constitutional scholar, not a theologian, I was only dimly aware of David Gushee before his Post essay. But that essay “mainstreamed” an argument that should be of interest to all Christians, so I went to the series of sixteen online columns Gushee wrote for Baptist News Global over the last few months (the last installment herehas links to all the previous ones), now also published as a short book. And I have to say I was taken aback, not by the conclusions about sexuality Gushee reaches, which are perfectly conventional in the world today, but by the sophistry he employs to square those conclusions with scripture-based Christian sexual ethics.

As I tweeted after reading his Post essay, Gushee gives us bad anthropology, shallow theology, and uncharitable ethics, but impeccable social fashion for today’s world. He also—and this is not central to his argument, but appears to be essential to his opinion of himself—makes a repeated comparison of himself and his like-minded Christian friends to the brave leaders of the American civil rights movement a half century ago, and even to the martyred hero of Christian resistance to Nazism, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. That is simply appalling, coming from a man who is now only in danger of being lionized, not fed to the lions, tortured and executed like Bonhoeffer, or attacked with dogs and firehoses.

Here is my own summary of Gushee’s extended argument through his column series, as fairly as I can make it out:

Gay people exist among us, and cannot change.
Being cruel to them is wrong.
Some Christians, including some gays, believe a Christian sexual ethic requires celibacy on their part.
But celibacy is an “exceptional and rare calling” that most simply will not embrace.
Therefore we Christians should undertake a “normative reconsideration” of our sexual ethics.
Christians disagree about what is “the biblical” position on many things.
Taking the usual Bible passages each in turn, we can reread them in untraditional ways.
The story of Sodom in Genesis can be read as a tale of violent rape having nothing to do with loving same-sex relations.
Leviticus calls homosexual acts an abomination, but it describes many other acts that way too.
Who’s for a death penalty for sodomy? And also for a death penalty for every other “abomination” in Old Testament law?
Maybe this prohibition was just a way of setting Israel apart from other nearby cultures, or maybe it was just a male-domination thing.
Turning to the New Testament, the vocabulary of Paul is unclear, and homosexual acts in the ancient world were typically exploitative and violent, not loving.
And anyway Paul might mean (in Romans) those who can resist their attraction to others of the same sex, not those who cannot.
The male-female frame of biblical sexuality is just, after all, a cultural artifact, and our culture is different now.
What then should we do about the apparent (but maybe not real) conflicts between the biblical text and the “stubborn facts” we now know (but were not known in ancient days) from experience and science?
We should reconcile ourselves to living in a “Genesis 3” world, in which all are fallen, whereas the old morality unreasonably demanded a prelapsarian “Genesis 1-2” world we don’t live in.
But a merely consensual ethic won’t do, so we should insist on a covenantal sexual ethic for gay couples as for everyone else, i.e., same-sex marriage and/or church-recognized unions.

As readers can see, Gushee takes every step in his argument with a bias toward viewing same-sex attraction as natural and irresistible for those who experience it, toward viewing same-sex relationships as behaviorally and morally indistinguishable from a healthy marriage between a man and a woman, and toward viewing the divinely inspired authors of scripture as completely ignorant of these “stubborn facts.” He concludes that their biblical morality was therefore concerned only with the violent, exploitative homosexual conduct they knew about, which was all they knew about.

I said above that Gushee’s first problem is a bad anthropology, and one sees it here. If healthy, natural same-sex relationships are a normal part of the human experience today, it stands to reason they would have been so in antiquity as well. But the Bible contains not a single affirming portrait of a rightly ordered same-sex erotic relationship. And Gushee is far too certain—more than even the boilerplate statements of the modern psychological establishment can justify—that same-sex attraction, in a determinate proportion of the population, is both fixed and irresistible. Tell that to Rosaria Butterfield, Wesley Hill, Doug Mainwaring, Robert Oscar Lopez, Eve Tushnet, or the men and women in the Catholic documentary “The Desire of the Everlasting Hills.” All their experiences differ, but each of them has managed to come out of the homosexual life and live in faith and sexual integrity with the help of their families and friends.

Gushee’s shallow theology is evident in his textual exegesis, which claims historical-linguistic warrant that real experts such as Robert Gagnon have challenged and debunked, but which also seems strangely free-floating and ahistorical in its detachment from the life of the early church and the revolution it effected in ancient Mediterranean society. As the classical scholar Kyle Harper has shown in his book From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, the early church followed the lead of Paul in “radical opposition to all same-sex intercourse,” with an “unambiguous . . . blanket condemnation of same-sex love.” “For Paul,” Harper writes, “same-sex attraction symbolized the estrangement of men and women, at the very level of their inmost desires, from the creator.” The Christian revolution in sexual morality was bound up with its radical teaching on free will, an “acute concern with volition” that delivered a “liberating message of freedom” from sin. “The protean energy of human desire resisted being corralled, but marriage, inexorably, became the only legitimate venue of erotic fulfillment.” For David Gushee to argue as he does that Paul and the early church simply failed to grasp ennobling erotic possibilities known to us today is to engage in the worst form of presentism, and condescending to the man whom the Lord knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus.

I said as well that Gushee’s ethics are uncharitable, and that conclusion is hard to resist after seeing his offer of a “Genesis 3” approach to the problem of sin. We all have our own crosses to bear, of temptations, passions, and bad habit. But when Gushee suggests in his column series that “in Genesis 3 perspective no one’s sexuality is innocent” (his italics), that “everyone’s sexuality is broken in ways known quite well to each of us in our own hearts,” and that “everyone’s sexuality needs to be morally disciplined and ordered,” he seems really to be saying that we must not only accept that we are sinful, but accept our sins themselves. Shrug off that cross and be the sinning creature that God made you. What is “morally disciplined and ordered” about that? It is a descent into incoherence and bad counsel. Sinners and their sins may come in packages, but the struggle to live in faith means exchanging the burden of sin for the burden of the Cross, praying for the grace to accept the weight of joy promised in the exchange. Gushee seems to dispense with the latter by telling us the former can be rationalized away. I find it hard to see the Christian love for brothers and sisters in that.

But Gushee is certainly full of high self-love. In his own eyes he is a brave heir to Bonhoeffer’s legacy, prepared to lose friendships among the hopelessly retrogade, the bitter clingers to the teachings of Jesus and his apostles as the church has always understood them. The dark fate that awaits the courageous David Gushee consists of major newspaper features, interviews with celebrity journalists, acclaim from his academic peers, and book-signing parties in our best progressive bookstores across the country. My, what a martyrdom.

Matthew J. Franck

Matthew J. Franck is the Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution.  He is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Radford University, in Radford, Virginia, where he taught constitutional law, American politics, and political philosophy from 1989 to 2010, was Chairman of the  Department … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24