Author Robert Gagnon has parlayed his best selling 2001 treatise into a role as theological spokesman par excellence on behalf of the conservative camps within the various mainline Christian denominations concerning LGBT issues. With bona fide scholarly credentials behind his conservative argumentation (B.A. degree from Dartmouth College, an M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School, and a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary), he provides the intellectual cover for those who oppose gay clergy and gay marriage within Christian denominations. What is more, due to his popularity, he has become a virtual cottage industry, and his website promotes his videos, audio tapes, articles, books, upcoming speaking engagements and recommended talking points.
He provides the scholarly support for those promoting a sola scriptura, word alone, “Bible trumps science, reason, and experience”, attitude toward ethical discernment of sexuality issues. In this, there is extreme irony because his baseline argument is not biblical at all; instead, his views are based on natural law and science (anatomy)—we’ll consider this in detail below. That’s not to say he doesn’t discuss the oft-quoted biblical passages with great erudition. Indeed, even those who disagree with his conclusions can learn from his discussion of ancient same gender sexual practices and cultural attitudes.
Gagnon recognizes the difficulty in promoting the oft used and misused “clobber passages” as warrant for conservative Christian policies vis a vis committed same gender partners. Yet, he is not willing to let go of the traditional arguments either, often expressing a “yes, but” response to consensus scholarship that would dismiss or diminish the relevance of such clobber passages for the current debate over committed partners. Yes, the Sodom story of Genesis is about hospitality and not homosexuality Gagnon acknowledges, but
what makes this instance of inhospitality so dastardly, what make the name “Sodom” a byword for inhumanity to visiting outsiders in later Jewish and Christian circles, is the specific form in which the inhospitality manifests itself: homosexual rape. p 76
So, while acknowledging that the Sodom story “is not an ‘ideal’ text to guide contemporary sexual ethics” (p 71), Gagnon doesn’t quite surrender it either. In this manner, he doesn’t directly abandon current scholarship, yet he retains enough wriggle room for his conservative followers to continue to misuse the biblical “clobber passages.”
As mentioned above, Gagnon’s own thesis does not rely on the traditional clobber passages of the Sodom story, or on the Levitical holiness code, or on the Pauline writings of Romans 1 or the vice lists of 1 Cor 6 and 1 Timothy. Gagnon acknowledges the weaknesses of each of these with “yes, but” argumentation.
Instead, Gagnon proposes a theory of “complementarity”, which is little more than a warmed-over restatement of ancient procreation arguments. Hear Gagnon’s words, which he couches as the “contrary to nature” arguments of the ancients:
Procreation is God’s clue, given in nature, that the male penis and female vagina/womb are complementary organs. No other sexuality results in new life. Therefore the only acceptable form of sexual intercourse is between a man and a woman … sexual passion for its own sake [is] little more than unbridled lust void of societal responsibility. p 164
The second main reason why same-sex intercourse was rejected as “contrary to nature” extends from reproductive capability to the anatomical fittedness of the male penis and the female vagina. p 169
Listen now to Gagnon’s “yes, but” argument:
[Yes] Each of the two main arguments contains elements that contemporary assessments of sexuality would find unacceptable … [but] Nevertheless, the core of both arguments remain persuasive in a contemporary context, containing as they do a recognition of the fundamental biological complementarity of men and women, a divine and natural stamp of maleness and femaleness that is blurred by same-sex intercourse. Apart from Scripture [emphasis mine], the clearest indications of God’s design for human sexuality come from the anatomical fit and functional capacity of male and female sex organs.
Because male genitalia “fits’ female genitalia, we can infer that this reflects God’s creative design. And since Genesis 1 & 2 are about creation, we can read this theory of complementarity into the text. Voila! A biblical argument against same gender sexual activity of any and all kinds! With a scholarly slight of hand, Gagnon has transformed anatomy into biblical doctrine. In the end, the erudite Biblical scholar and exegete is reduced to gussying up the simplistic anatomical notions of the ancients in modern garb and by a series of inferences passing them off as biblical truth.