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Why Some Christians Should Avoid Reading Mark Achtemeier’s The Bible’s Yes to Same-sex Marriage


Given the polarization and strong emotional commitment of many Christians to one side or the other on the topic of homosexuality, let me start by doing some spiritual triage. Some of you might save your time, and maybe some elevated blood pressure, by not reading this book, or even this review of it.

If you are absolutely sure that you are correct in your traditional understanding of blanket biblical condemnations of same-sex intimacy and feel that this topic has only technical, or indirect, connection to the gospel or our methods of sharing the gospel, then you need to read no further. You should instead invest in a copy of Robert A. J. Gagnon’s 520 page book “The Bible and Homosexual Practice.”  Gagnon’s scholarly work covers every aspect of the topic, “proves” that there can be no other way to interpret the Bible and answers every objection to the traditional conservative Christian belief. Mastering that book you will be able to win every argument and rest secure in your belief that you know exactly how gays can or cannot be saved.

On the other hand, if you agree that the traditional teaching seems watertight, but are uncomfortable with the seeming lack of love in this debate for people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or other “alternative sexuality”; or if you wonder how Jesus would treat these people; or if you wish that you could hear a more Christ-centered theology of sexuality expounded, then you might enjoy reading  “Submitting Our Sexuality to the Lordship of Christ”, a beautiful 1996 article by Mark Achtemeier, then a Dubuque Theological Seminary professor, found here. Filled with the love of Christ, it is nevertheless a clear call to celibacy and purity for any Christian not in a committed, opposite-sex, monogamous marriage. You are sure to be greatly blessed by this gospel-based, biblically faithful presentation. So you may not need to read the rest of this article.

Then again, if you did click on that link and thoughtfully read Achtemeier’s article, you may be wondering how it could be possible for such a conservative evangelical scholar with such an obviously high view of scripture and such a passion to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5)—how is it possible that he could also be the author of a book titled The Bible’s Yes to Same-sex Marriage? Achtemeier describes his earlier self as “a conservative church activist working hard to defend the ‘traditional’ teaching of my own Presbyterian Church (USA) that was condemning homosexual practice.” Arguing against allowing openly gay and lesbian members to be ordained for church leadership, he tasted success in 1997 when his denomination put in place a constitutional ban on gay ordination.
But just a few years later we find this same theologian fighting just as hard on the other side, now for the repeal of the ban on gay ordination he had helped to put in place. The result was that the Presbyterian (USA) denomination began ordaining otherwise qualified gay pastors starting in 2011.

While many would accuse Achtemeier of apostasy and others would suspect he had lost his mind, his own testimony is that the essentials of his faith and his theology had, if changed at all, only deepened and matured. His 2014 book demonstrates the same high view of scripture, the same commitment to obedience to the Word, the same love for people and for the Christ-centered gospel that is so evident in his 1996 article referenced above.

Of course there was a change, which had to do with the way Mark Achtemeier applied his faith and biblical scholarship to real life. And that came about because he was privileged to enjoy a number of close personal relationships with deeply committed gay Christians, through which he came to better understand something of the depth of their struggles. Many, who were fully committed to following Christ as celibate disciples because they could not marry an opposite-sex partner, began to display symptoms of deep depression, loss of faith and even thoughts of suicide, rather than the vibrant peace and joy the Bible promises to those who give up all to follow Christ. All this he details in the book, telling how their stories led him to wonder if traditional understandings of biblical teachings on same-sex relations might be in error. That question motivated him to restudy the biblical foundation of his convictions.

Starting with a review of principles of biblical interpretation, he realized that Judeo-Christian history holds many examples of those who thought they thoroughly understood God’s word, but didn’t. From the Jewish teachers of the law in Christ’s day who had mastered the scriptures but murdered the Messiah; to early Christians who knew that Gentile converts to Christianity had to be circumcised; to slave owners in America who defended, from their well-read Bibles, the enslavement of men, women and children; to white supremacists today who quote scripture to excuse their oppression of people of color—all these and others led Achtemeier to ask what principles of biblical interpretation can keep us from similar errors in regard to what we know of homosexuality today? His answers, though relatively brief, caution us against proof-texting and encourage us to find the good sense and reasonableness of God’s requirements.  We should also, he writes, keep Christ and His teachings at the center, let the Bible interpret itself and consider the historical and cultural context of the message as compared to the current situation.

After his brief primer on hermeneutics the author tells how he restudied principles of love, sex and marriage from scripture. What were God’s purposes in giving us marriage? Avoiding what might seem the most obvious answer, the preservation and propagation of humanity, he focuses on how we, both male and female, are made in the likeness of God and find our highest joy in giving ourselves to another in unselfish love. As Christ in love gave His body for us, the husband and wife are privileged to give their bodies to each other, finding joy and fulfillment in each other but also learning to give up self in sacrifice for the other. All this comes out of passages in both Old and New Testament likening God’s relationship to His people as a passionate courtship; a good marriage or a dysfunctional, painful marriage and as an ideal for human marriage partners to emulate.

Next the author applies what he has learned thus far to the question of same-sex relationships in a chapter entitled Special Blessings: Why Gay People Have an Honored Place in God’s Heart. This includes the question of procreation, which is not a mandatory ingredient in a good marriage, he concludes, especially in view of how effectively we’ve managed to obey God’s command to multiply and fill the earth! But for me, the most beautiful part of this chapter is the section on how scripture often celebrates the unusual or “the road less traveled.” How strange it seems that the people God blessed the most—like Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and the priest Zechariah and Elizabeth—seemed unable to conceive children naturally, experiencing childbirth only through miraculous pregnancies and births.

Yet the most wonderful example of God delighting in the unusual is related to his coming to earth as the Messiah. By accepting her special pregnancy, the unwed, teenaged Mary was not only subject to shame and rejection, but under Old Testament law could have been stoned to death. Here Jesus identified himself with the sexually despised of the earth, bringing shame on his parents and accepted being maligned as a bastard throughout his life on earth. Although God gives us ideals and usual ways for sexuality to be used he often surprises us as he chooses, and blesses, the unusual.

But all of this means little to many Christians because of the Bible’s several proscriptions of same-sex intimacy in both the Old and New Testaments. So next, Achtemeier devotes two chapters to a study of what he calls “the fragments,” proof texts that seem to forbid any attempts to give gays, lesbians and others some semblance of blessing in intimate relationships.

Here the author avoids the tendency of many who try to minimize these teachings. Rather, he insists that the only way we can understand what the Bible writers are condemning in these passages is to examine the historical evidence of what types of same-sex relations were being practiced in that time and culture. Every form of homoerotic relationship known in both Old and New Testament times had to do with idolatrous temple prostitution or with relationships that were coercive or violent. Achtemeier finds that he wholly agrees with condemnations of all such practices. But he finds that the condemnations begin to have a hollow ring when applied to two Christians, who are incapable of sustaining an opposite-sex romantic relationship, joining in a monogamous, fully committed life-long relationship of same-sex love.

Obviously not every Christian will agree with Achtemeier’s conclusions. But we surely cannot accuse him of ignoring scripture or of simply wanting to be politically correct or popular. Here is a man who’s commitment to scripture and to holy living had brought him honor and success as a recognized spiritual leader, valiant for truth and godliness. But finding firmly committed gay Christians for whom his deeply held convictions proved damaging and destructive, he was willing to reexamine his understandings of God’s will. We who were not born with the condition of homosexuality ought to be very hesitant to pretend that we know God’s answers to a condition we have never experienced. It was only when Mark Achtemeier the theologian, was willing to become Mark Achtemeier the caring friend and confidant of gays, that his conscience was pricked and he heard the voice of the Spirit urging him to rethink his cherished conclusions.

As he notes in his book, for Christian leaders to confidently prescribe a life of mandatory celibacy and life-long aloneness to followers of Jesus who have not been given the spiritual gift of celibacy is to blatantly ignore the clear teaching of Scripture. In Genesis 2:18 the Creator says “It is not good for the man to be alone,” a clear reference to a life-long, intimate relationship. The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:6-9 recommends (but does not command) the celibate life for those who have that gift from God, adding, “one has this gift, another has that.” And in 1 Corinthians 12:11 he teaches that the Holy Spirit, not a church council, decides which person receives which gift. Yet much of conservative Christianity ignores these principles in dealing with gender and sexuality minorities. If we are serious in our quest to love and bring salvation to this significant minority of humanity we must find some better answers.

Mark Achetemier may not have found the final answer. But those of us who are sincerely seeking to be faithful disciples of Jesus cannot ignore the testimony about his search or quickly dismiss his conclusions.

You might want to read this book after all!

Claude E. Steen, III is a retired Adventist pastor living in North Carolina. He and his wife Donna are the proud parents of five married children, one of whom is gay. The Steens also delight in their eleven grandchildren, ages 25 to 5.

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