Today’s essay is the fourteenth installment in my series on the contemporary moral crisis. I have decided that the best way to address “the elephant in the room” or should I say “the elephant in the church house” (same-sex relationships) is by reviewing a book that argues for the Christian legitimacy of loving, covenantal same-sex relationships. I have chosen to do a multipart analytical and critical review of Karen Keen, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships (Eerdmans, 2018). Why this subject, and why this book?
Why this Subject and Why Now?
Until recently the subject of same-sex relationships and related issues of gender—indeed the whole list of LGBTQ+ identities—has been for evangelical and other conservative Christians a matter of the “culture wars.” Bible-believing Christians, evangelicals, and other conservative believers were united in defending traditional views of sex and marriage against liberal (or “progressive”) Christians and secular progressives. Conservatives viewed liberal Christians’ openness to same-sex relationships as a by-product of their prior rejection of the Bible as the definitive authority for doctrine and morals. Secular progressives, of course, do not acknowledge the Bible as an authority for anything. They appeal to a completely different source of moral guidance: science, culture, and personal experience.
However, within the past five years a significant number of pastors, professors, authors, and church members who claim to be evangelical, bible-believing, and orthodox have spoken out in favor of the church accepting same-sex relationships on the same or a similar basis as that on which it accepts traditional marriage. I am not speaking here only of something far away and limited to books by authors I do not know. I am speaking also about pastors, professors, and church members I know personally. I do not see how any church or parachurch institution can avoid this internal discussion for much longer. We are past the point of “the calm before the storm.” The storm is upon us. And it will not end until it exhausts its energy.
Why this Book?
Why Karen Keen’s book? Though clearly an intelligent and well-educated person—among other degrees, she holds Master of Theology from Duke Divinity School and has done work toward a PhD in Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity at Marquette University—Keen is not an elite biblical scholar, historian, or theologian. She is the founder and director of the Redwood Center for Spiritual Care & Education. Her book is short and written in a popular style. Why not, instead, review the most scholarly and detailed book advocating the thesis I want to examine? My reasons are simple: Books written in an academic style make arguments based on knowledge of ancient languages and cultures. They construct elaborate arguments from secular and church history and from psychology, sociology, and biology. Because the average person cannot assess the soundness of such elite arguments they are tempted to trust whichever expert that makes the case for the conclusion they prefer on quite different grounds.
I consider the brevity and popular style of the book to be an advantage in speaking to the audience I want to reach. In fact, Keen and I are writing to the same audience, Christian believers who view the Bible as the final authority for faith, religious practice, and morals. She argues in a clear and simple way that can be understood and evaluated by lay Christians based on their knowledge of English translations of the Bible, common sense principles of interpretation, and moral reasoning open to all. And yet, Keen has read widely in elite biblical, historical, and theological works, incorporating this information into her book. Hence I am confident that by analyzing and critiquing her work—though it is simple and popular—I am also evaluating the most persuasive arguments of elite scholars.
Keen’s Essential Argument
During the course of this series I will unfold the book’s full argument step by step with its supporting evidence and rebuttals of opposing arguments. But its core argument can be stated in a short series of assertions followed by a conclusion. Assertions one through three are principles of biblical interpretation, assertions four and five are derived from the experience of gay and lesbian people, and the conclusion follows from the combination of assertions one through five.
1. The Bible’s positive moral teachings, including the creation mandates concerning male and female in Genesis 1 and 2, provide a vision of justice, goodness, and peace, and they are intended to promote a just, good, and flourishing world. (Interpretive Principle)
2. The Bible’s moral prohibitions and limitations, including its rules for sexual behavior, are intended to forbid things that cause harm to human beings, human community, and the rest of creation and to prevent heartache and destruction from disrupting human flourishing. (Interpretive Principle)
3. To interpret and apply the Bible’s positive and negative moral teachings in keeping with their intended purposes we must deliberate about whether or not applying a specific biblical rule to a particular situation prevents harm and promotes justice, goodness, and human flourishing. Interpretations and applications that cause harm and inhibit human flourishing must be rejected. (Interpretive Principle)
4. Gay and lesbian people do not choose to be gay or lesbian, and the overwhelming majority cannot change their orientation. (Derived from Experience)
5. A large majority of gay and lesbian people do not have the gift of celibacy and find such a state lonely and deeply painful. (Derived from Experience)
6. Because loving, committed same-sex relationships embody justice, goodness, and human flourishing (#1), do not cause harm to the people in the relationship or the human community (#2), and unwanted celibacy causes great harm and unhappiness to gay and lesbian people (#4 and #5), faithful deliberation and application (#3) must conclude that the Bible allows and even blesses covenanted same-sex relationships.
Looking ahead, I ask readers to be patient. My semester has begun and the work load at school is heavy. I cannot post as often as I have during my summer break. It may take a while to work through the book. Because I consider this topic highly important to the future of the church I plan to move slowly and methodically through Keen’s argument, considering carefully every significant factual claim, logical move, and conclusion. Also I intend to describe her argument fairly, acknowledging its strengths even as I point out its weaknesses. Nothing is gained by misrepresentation, dramatization, or appeal to prejudice. I wish to write in a way that were Karen Keen to read my review she would acknowledge that I have represented her arguments accurately and (at least) tried to evaluate them fairly.