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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage" (Mark Achtemeier)

TITLE: The Bible's Yes to Same-Sex Marriage: An Evangelical's Change of Heart
AUTHOR: Mark Achtemeier
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, (144 pages).

The title of the book already points out what the book is all about. According to Mark Achtemeier, a former lobbyist against ordination of gay and lesbian people, who played a key role in the decision of the PCUSA to ban gay ordination, the book is about how he had a change of heart. Thus, since 1996, he has been trying to reverse the ban. He makes several disclaimers before diving into the details. He is not gay; not struggling with any same-sex attraction; does not have a family member struggling with homosexuality inclinations; conservative and biblically faithful; and writes this book without any external pressures. Writing this book as a story of his own change of heart, he points out that the main reason for his change is due to a re-interpretation of the Bible's teachings.

First, he takes issue with the traditional condemnation of gay relationships. Using examples of real lives of people honestly struggling with sexual orientation but felt repressed by traditionalists, Achtemeier is troubled with people attacking them as not being biblically faithful. He argues that these people can be very biblically sound despite their sexual orientation. Such people have deep convictions of faith that even resemble that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He laments at how such believers have been forced to leave the Church they loved. He compares these cases with the celibacy requirements imposed by the Roman Catholic Church.What kind of a God would subject these people to such torment? Second, he questions the traditionalists' teachings and interpretations of the Bible, even suggesting the pattern as similar to neo-Nazi supremacist movement; the pro-slavery causes; and lays the blame smack on interpretation that is out of context. More aggressively, he accuses the traditionalists of doing "erroneous readings of biblical law."

Third, he shows us what it means to read the Bible "faithfully and responsibly." We need to avoid reading only fragments and choice verses. Any interpretation needs the following principles:

  • #1 - They will be coherent and makes good sense instead of arbitrary rules.
  • #2 - Christ-Centered interpretation to maintain a big picture of the Bible narrative
  • #3 - Interpret Scripture with Scripture
  • #4 - Interpreting passages in context
  • #5 - Understand the purpose of the Law-Giver

Fourth, Achtemeier looks at the topics of love, marriage, and sexuality. He claims that Genesis 1 and 2 "are far from the last word" as far as love, marriage, and sexuality are concerned. He calls the Song of Solomon as treading the "middle ground." He then talks about the term "marriage" being used for Israel and God. His key interpretation in these marriage language is that the "love that binds people together in marriage is like the love that exists in the heart of God." He turns around and says that marriage is the vehicle that helps us grow into an image of God's love for us. He calls Paul's instructions on marriage in Ephesians a "first century understanding of marriage." Marriage is thus about spouses giving to each other willingly and readily.

Fifth, he re-discusses "procreation" and deals directly with what the Bible means by "male and female anatomy," and questions whether the Bible actually limits marriage between only male and female. Looking back, he admits that Genesis does state the marriage between male and female, but when he looks forward, his contention is that the Bible does not specifically forbid same-sex unions. He argues from Acts 10:1-11:18 that even Gentiles were not required to follow the Jewish law, and concludes that "through Christ," we have a "new faith-based path to divine blessing and salvation." He then applies this freedom to gay marriage and re-interprets same-sex matters with openness in the name of contextual interpretation.

So What?

Overall, this book begins fairly and somewhat personal, with Achtemeier providing some personal confessions and his journey from conservative stance toward a more progressive perspective. He makes some good comments about the goodness of God, the need for love to be shown, and the ways of Jesus who chooses not to condemn but to forgive. He then adopts a new interpretive worldview to explain why he had decided to change his views on homosexuality, specifically tackling the commonly used verses that appear rather condemning of homosexuality.

There is something dismissive in the book that disturbs me. In arguing that the ancient biblical verses are not to be taken out of context, I get the sense that the author himself is committing the opposite error of reading modern contexts of love into the biblical texts. In suffering, one often wrestles with how a good God could ever allow suffering to happen. Likewise, in trying to read love into the biblical texts, Achtemeier wrestles with how a good God can ever allow homosexuality to be a sin. Based on this premise, the author's interpretive journey is set. With love as his overriding concern, various fragments that condemn homosexuality can be explained away or rationalized with human understanding of God's love intact. He gives love the supreme position, that the whole purpose of life is to become "love." His interpretive key is that we are all called to see that "marriage is like the love that exists in the heart of God" and argues that "human marital love" is like the image of God's love. He talks more about the "potential" rather than to formulate his words in any absolute terms. He states that marriage between a man and a woman is merely one interpretation. What he does is that he has opened up the definition of marriage. He has chosen to set in temporal terms the individual passages of Scripture on sexuality, constantly emphasize it as old interpretations. His "strong conclusions" about God's purposes is simply this: "God intends for these gifts to help us grow deeper and richer experience of the joy, passion, and fulfillment that come with giving ourselves wholly to another in accordance with the pattern of Christ's giving love." For this, I feel that Achtemeier is guilty of the very criticisms he pointed at others. For example, his "positive conclusions" basically drove the vehicle of interpretation, which explains his dismissive stance about Paul's logic in Romans 1. He claims that Paul was aiming Romans 1 at "pagan neighbours" and not "faithful gay Christians." Well, if we can easily dismiss such biblical verses like that, we can easily apply that to a lot of Scripture. That is terrible application.

When talking about procreation, Achtemeier uses the argument from silence, about Jesus never mentioning about same-sex relationships. He even says that just because Jesus talks about marriage between male and female, that does not mean he forbids same sex marriage.  These arguments look logical at first but they are weak ones. One can also say that Jesus never forbid anyone from marrying a dog or a coconut tree! Moreover, if we want to argue from silence, the sky's the limit on the range of issues that we can insert into our life. Who needs the Bible then? Arguments from silence work both ways, and can also work against his interpretation. One can say that Jesus does not directly condemn homosexuality. Another can also say with equal weight that that does not mean Jesus don't intend to judge homosexuality too. Both are arguments from silence.

His criticism usually goes back to using Jesus' style of criticizing Pharisees and the adherents of the law. He re-interprets the various "fragments" that are often used to argue against homosexuality through the lens of a purpose-driven definition of sexuality. For example, the condemnation of males lying with males in Leviticus 20:13 is re-interpreted as sexual activities that lead to "gang rape" and not the activity itself. He re-interprets Romans 1:18-27 with a predetermined template that says: "That's not condemnation of homosexuality because the larger context does not say so." Frankly, such a template is also on shaky grounds as his own re-interpretations can also be questionable.

Honestly, I feel that the author's interpretive framework is already biased. The author's personal "conclusions" are found at many places in the book, telling me that Achtemier writes this book with "positive conclusions" already set in concrete rather than to let the Bible speak for itself. For all the right intentions the author has, the premise of the whole book is already wrong. For if the author is correct that the Bible does not specifically condemn homosexuality, it does not specifically say that it approves same-sex marriage either.

Rating: 3 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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