Virtually every late-night argument about predestination and free will ends the same way: either someone falls asleep or someone stands up and says, “let’s just agree to disagree, okay?”
Not so with many debates about the Bible’s position on homosexuality.
Zachary Weber, a Geneva alumni and a gay professing Christian, lamented how heated many of his conversations with friends and family are on the topic: “for some reason, this particular issue gets blown up, and people take much stronger views.”
The psychological importance of sexual identity as well as the tense political climate about homosexuality are commonly believed to be two of the primary reasons why the debate can get so heated so fast.
But there might be another reason that the issue is so volatile for many Christians: the disagreement may be much deeper and harder to grasp.
“Whenever there’s a tense subject like this, I always ask questions about fundamental assumptions. I ask someone who disagrees with me, ‘How did you come to believe that viewpoint?’” explained Dr. Jonathan Watt, head of Geneva College’s Bible department.
Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views authors Dan Via and Robert Gagnon address this question in detail: their debate shows that the reason that many Christian discussions about homosexuality are so unproductive is because the two viewpoints have different criteria for interpreting the Bible.
Via starts his defense of Biblical homosexuality—that being a practicing gay Christian is biblical so long as the person is monogamous—by explaining that he believes in an experiential view of interpreting the Bible.
For example, Via does not see the Biblical canon as closed. He argues that science, culture and personal experience can re-inform the canon.
While acknowledging that some Bible passages like Romans 1:24-27 call homosexuality a sin, Via is comfortable disregarding these verses. He cites the importance of the personal experience of gay Christians who feel their attraction to the same sex is natural and of the implications of a modern culture that does not stigmatize homosexuality as key revelatory experiences that are important in Biblical interpretation.
Gagnon uses a different method for reaching his conclusion that the church’s traditional view of homosexuality is correct: he describes his method as the historical-critical method, meaning he places the utmost importance on the context in which the passages were written in, what they meant to the original audience, and how the church has historically interpreted the verses.
In addition to these interpretive differences, the two sides have different views on the nature of homosexuality.
To Via and many who take a more liberal approach to the issue, homosexuality is a God-given trait that is an integral part of a gay person’s identity. To Gagnon, who sides with traditional church history, homosexuality is a sin that some struggle with, not an identity-definer.
Via writes, “Since the homosexual is for Christian faith as much a part of God’s creation as the heterosexual, how can the homosexual destiny, which is as inalienable as the heterosexual destiny, not be regarded as a part of God’s creative intent, just as the heterosexual destiny is so regarded?”
In contrast, Geneva Bible professor Dr. Scott Shidemantle explained a view similar to Gagnon’s: that the nature of homosexuality is one of rebellion. Shidemantle does not believe that a person who struggles with same-sex attraction is defined by their temptation: “I think homosexuality … is a very vivid picture of human rebellion against God’s gospel gift of marriage.”
These fundamental differences become noticeable in debates on the topic.
When Weber speaks with his family members and friends about the topic of homosexuality, he thinks in the big picture, often using phrases like, “How can you argue against love?”
On the other hand, Shidemantle’s Reformed view of the Bible leads him to use specific Bible passages when he talks on the subject.
Adding a further level of complexity to the debate is the disagreements within both of the positions.
For example, while Shidemantle is comfortable drawing a distinction between homosexual temptation and homosexual actions, author of Homosexuality: Speaking the Truth in Love Edward Welch believes that even homosexual “desire” is sinful (19).
On the other side, the Gay Christian Network is up front that there is no unified liberal view on the topic. Its website reads “not all of our members believe the same thing. For example, while some of our members believe in gay marriage, sex, and dating, some of our members do not (and are therefore committed to celibacy).”
As both sides struggle to lovingly express their views, Weber’s question rings throughout every conversation about homosexuality and the Bible: “How do we know what is the right interpretation and the right view?”
Many Geneva students, like senior creative writing major Gwenyth Gamble, take that answer for granted. “A long-standing tenet of historical Reformed theology has been the interpretation of the Bible by itself. There is no other book that can bear the title of God-breathed,” she explained in an email.
But Gamble also sees value in attempting to understand the viewpoints of those who disagree with her.
“For me to assume that there can be no knowledge gained from discussions with those who differ from me would be the height of arrogance,” she said.