Published by Baker Academic on March 16, 2021
Genres: Non-Fiction, Theology
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This book takes a distinctive approach to the same-sex-union debate by framing the issue as a matter of marriage. Darrin Snyder Belousek demonstrates that the interpretation of Scripture affects whether the church should revise its doctrine of marriage for the sake of sanctioning same-sex union. Engaging charitably yet critically with opposing viewpoints, he delves deeply into what marriage is, what it is for, and what it means as presented in the biblical narrative and the theological tradition, articulating a biblical-traditional theology of marriage for the contemporary church. Afterword by Wesley Hill.
There is probably no bigger or more contentious discussion in the church today than issues surrounding same-sex sexual behavior and same-sex marriage. This is more than a theological issue. For many, it’s a matter of identity, of validation, and of civil rights. This isn’t just an academic discussion. That’s part of what makes reviews like this so difficult to write. Marriage, Scripture, and the Church: Theological Discernment on the Question of Same-Sex Union is unabashedly academic. Darrin Belousek delivers a thorough, comprehensive, and cautious review of Scripture and church tradition, meticulously working his way through the arguments, counter-arguments, objections, and rebuttals in an effort to bring clarity of complexity to an issue often thought to be both muddy and settled.
By clarity of complexity, I mean that Belousek doesn’t hide from good arguments, acknowledges when points are strong or weak, and is even-handed in his approach. Though I had a well-reasoned guess as to his ultimate conclusions, it honestly wasn’t until three-quarters through the book that I had a firm grasp on Belousek’s personal conclusions of his evaluation. That, to me, is the highlight of Marriage, Scripture, and the Church. While Belousek writes toward a conclusion, he writes without an agenda. Even though he maintains a traditional (non-affirming) view, he gives due diligence to affirming perspectives and arguments.
The first part of the book serves as an introduction of sorts, where Belousek frames the discussion and outlines his approach and presuppositions. For Belousek, the first matter is marriage: the question that he is seeking an answer for is whether or not the church should sanction same-sex unions. The presupposition is that all sex is meant to be within a unitive, mutual, exclusive, enduring marriage relationship.
The second part dives into the concept of marriage, discussing the role of marriage in Scripture and tradition, Jesus’s views on marriage, the patriarchal nature of Ancient Near Eastern culture, and more. Belousek’s purpose here is to laboriously ensure that, even if we do not agree with his starting point—that the only potential possible allowance for same-sex sexual activity is within marriage—we understand the position and have a good definition of all his starting points.
The third part is the meat of the book, which evaluates the case for what Belousek calls “marriage innovation.” With the review up to this point, Belousek is convinced—and writes a convincing argument—that the long-held, historical tradition of the church is that marriage is to be heterosexual. However, he acknowledges that tradition (what is normative) need not indicate what is exclusive. He points out times where church tradition was wrong—such as with its repudiation of a heliocentric solar system—and needed to change. He highlights that our modern, Western culture of marriage is completely foreign the marriage culture in the Ancient Near East.
Belousek also points to other areas in which the church—or segments of the church—has changed its minds. Using instances of the allowance of slavery and the prohibition of women in ministry, Belousek argues that some of what we see as biblical tradition was tradition, but tradition in need of change. Does same-sex union fall into this category? While Belousek may be a little overly optimistic about the change in regarding women in ministry, as many traditionalists in same-sex unions are also traditionalists in women in ministry, his overall exploration of the similarities and differences allow the reader to form their own conclusion, even if that ends up disagreeing with his own.
Among Belousek’s greatest points are his cautions toward traditionalist, whom he excoriates for the harm the position has done to sexual minorities by elevating sexual practice to the level of salvific orthodoxy. He writes that “Traditionalists should beware preaching a ‘heterosexual gospel’ that substitutes that misguided goal of orientation change for the good news of God’s grace.”
Marriage, Scripture, and the Church cogently and calmly outlines virtually every argument for and against same-sex marriage that I’ve ever heard, and even a few that I hadn’t. Belousek always comes to a conclusion, but the text is not written so as to guide the reader there. Instead, he presents the information, argues it dispassionately, and presents his conclusion even as he acknowledges the strengths of the opposite position. It was this tone, most of all, that kept me on the journey through the book. I read a digital advance copy on my phone and was convinced the book had to have been at least 700 pages. Google tells me it’s actually just over 300. I didn’t think this because the book was dry, but because Belousek was causing me to slow down and think critically and carefully about every issue.
Marriage, Scripture, and the Church is the most challenging and comprehensive work on same-sex union that I’ve ever read. There were areas that I agreed with Belousek’s conclusion and areas I didn’t. Sometimes, I held on to my disagreement but not as firmly. Other times, he came to a different conclusion, but I felt that the authors and texts he was working with made a better case and I found my disagreement strengthened. Some areas I agreed on, and other areas I found myself agreeing conclusively where I had previously only been moderately convinced. In that sense, Belousek’s work was a refreshing perspective that took time to absorb. Simply as a compendium of collated reference material, this book is a gem.
All of that said, I am not convinced that I agree with Belousek’s final conclusion in favor of the traditionalist (non-affirming) interpretation. But neither do I find myself wholeheartedly convinced of an innovative (affirming) interpretation. My personal conviction has been simply to allow the Spirit to work. To me, there is enough uncertainty to allow the issue to be between the individual and the Holy Spirit. If they’ve come to a conviction through that, I’m willing to let that be their decision. I know that this might come as a disappointment to friends more firmly on either side of the debate, but I know, right now, no other way for me to honestly and ethically handle where I’m at.
And Belousek had a portion of a chapter on that. Should we leave it to discernment? Using the Jerusalem Council, which opened up the church to Gentile believers, as his guide, Belousek asks if we can use such similar discernment to make allowance for same-sex unions. He writes: “Some might propose a seemingly Jerusalem-like decision for the church today: bless same-sex couples while enjoining gay believers to observe monogamy….[this would] affirm a middle position embracing both tradition (monogamy) and innovation (same-sex union).” Belousek eventually concludes that we should not, but I don’t find his argument convincing.
In all, Marriage, Scripture, and the Church is thoughtful, cogent, and comprehensive. It is the best academic work I’ve seen on the subject. If more traditionalists made arguments this way and treated the subject as thoughtfully as Belousek, we would go a long way toward uniting in Christian faith even as we disagree in Christian practice.