William Stacey Johnson, A Time to Embrace: Same-Gender Relationships in Religion, Law, and Politics (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2006).
I grew up in some very homophobic parts of the world, where gay was an insult, not an option. Between 30 and 40 percent of LGBTQ youth in the U.S. contemplate or attempt suicide during their teenage years and I suspect that the percentage would be higher in Tasmania or Western Sydney. LGBT-curious friends at school couldn’t honestly explore their sexuality for fear of assault and no one in any of the churches of my youth could have imagined that someone could be both gay and Christian.
Taught to “love the sinner, hate the sin,” I praised people who struggled with homosexual tendencies but did not act on them. Of course, I didn’t know any chaste homosexuals: those who were chaste were still in the closet and my openly gay friends were, like my heterosexual friends, comfortable having sex outside of marriage. I tried hard to keep straights and gays on the same moral plane: if I wasn’t going to bully straight non-Christians into chastity then I certainly wasn’t going to impose my Christian morality on gays and lesbians. As far as I was concerned, gay marriage was a civil right because marriage provides tax breaks, healthcare, inheritance privileges and access to sick relatives in hospital. But it was not a religious right; Christians should be allowed to define what happens in their churches and the Bible teaches that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. Life might be hard for gays and lesbians, I figured, but chastity was certainly possible. I was a virgin until I got married, and if I could practice abstinence, then why couldn’t they? But it’s one thing to be chaste knowing that a wonderful world of sex awaits you in the marriage bed, and quite another thing to be terrified of your own thoughts lest they condemn you to hell for all eternity. I knew this, but comfortably ignored it because the Biblical condemnations of homosexuality were so clear. At least, so I thought.
Things changed when two Christian friends for whom I have the utmost respect came out and got married. One was an elder in my church. Both had an enviable passion for seeking after God and a profound respect for His word. Studying the history of gender and sexuality had shown me how historically contingent gender, sexuality and marriage are, and that these categories are constantly in flux within every society. And the more I studied the Bible the more I discovered that, in the words of Gregory the Great, “scripture progresses along with those who read it.” As the living word of God, the Bible speaks into our circumstances; His is not a dead word, but one that brings grace and life to each new generation. To quote another dead monk, “everyone has to drink from his own well.” (Bernard of Clairvaux, De Consideratione). I knew so many learned, Bible-believing Christians who did not condemn homosexuality and when my friends got married I decided that I needed to find out why. So I picked up William Stacey Johnson.
A Time to Embrace (2006) carefully lays out seven major Christian positions on homosexuality. Johnson ignores extremist homophobes like Westboro Baptist Church as fundamentally un-Christian and he does not reduce any of the theological views he discusses to caricatures. Johnson respects each position and each would feel that he has fairly represented their ideas. He identifies the theological and philosophical underpinnings of each position, explains how each interprets key Biblical passages such as Romans 1, and outlines the major criticisms of all seven positions, including his own. Briefly, these positions are:
Prohibition: God has explicitly condemned homosexuality in the Bible; it is unnatural and must be repented of.
Toleration: Homosexuality is not God’s wish for humanity, but people feel homosexual desires because the Fall has corrupted creation. The only option for gays and lesbians is a life of chastity.
Accommodation: Life is morally ambiguous so we cannot judge others but should live with them as our brothers and sisters. Homosexuality is not good, and the church should be welcoming yet non-affirming of LGBTQ people.
Legitimation: Homosexual sin is the same as all other sin and we need to repent for having persecuted and singled-out homosexuals as pariahs. We should embrace them as our brothers and sisters and seek God together.
Celebration: Everything God created is good, including sex. We should celebrate all sexualities as part of God’s good creation.
Liberation: Gender, sexuality and marriage are all products of the power relationships that shape our culture and gender choices are too complex for black and white moral judgments to apply to them.
Consecration: God does surprising new things in the world and same-gender relationships can be sanctified by Christian marriage.
The first three, non-affirming, positions think primarily in terms of judgement and inflexible moral lines, whereas the four affirming positions emphasize a God of grace and love. As I read this book I moved from believing in toleration to embracing consecration. Johnson too believes in same-gender Christian marriage, and he dedicates a chapter to showing how the Bible supports this position. He grounds his argument both in a broad biblical theology and in close (but not too close) readings of Genesis 1-2, Leviticus, 1 Corinthians 6, 1 Timothy 1, 1 Thessalonians, Romans, Galatians 3:28, and the book of Ruth. There is a strong exegetical literature on the question of homosexuality in the Bible so I won’t go into his arguments but I highly recommend reading them.
A lawyer as well as a theologian, Johnson dedicates the second half of his book to a survey of legal battles over gay marriage in the United States. His conclusion is that although gay marriage is not legal in most American states, opposing it is unconstitutional and that eventually this will be unquestionable in law. Not only are these chapters now outdated because a lot has happened in the eight years since Johnson wrote them, but his argument is also dubious. He suggests that because equality for gays and lesbians is the way of the future, we would be foolish to stand in its way. No-one wants to have to tell their grandchildren that they opposed Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement, and future generations will look back at anti-gay Christians with the same horror. This is a very weak argument for anyone who thinks in terms of right and wrong because if something is wrong then it is still wrong even if the rest of society embraces it.
A Time to Embrace is not a sectarian polemic even though the author does have his own ideas and expresses them clearly. Rather, it shows that there are a wide range of Christian attitudes towards gay marriage and that one is not necessarily more “Christian” than another. The Biblical passages are not as clear as either side would like to pretend that they are, and how you read them depends on a host of philosophical presuppositions that each reader brings to the text. This book is a godsend to anyone interested in serious Christian responses to what is undoubtedly one of the most urgent human rights issues of our day.