Published by Morehouse Publishing on March 17, 2021
Genres: Academic, Non-Fiction
Buy on Amazon
A thoughtful analysis of the faulty rationale behind Christian anti-gay bias.
There have been enormous strides toward equality for the queer community in recent years. There have also been regressive local legislative actions seeking to limit those national steps toward equality. Many of those who have led these regressive efforts are individuals steeped in purposeful ignorance, bias, tribalism, and a radicalization of faithful beliefs, misleading their congregations and influencing legislators.
Personhood, the intense value of our individuality, cannot be made less by these few passages of scripture: God's love for our uniqueness is not compromised by oft misinterpreted verses. Having knowledge and words to counter baseless accusations can disarm those who would use these passages as weapons of exclusion and judgement, and can empower the queer community to live confidently in God's love.
For longer than I’ve been alive, sexual orientation and gender identity have been at the forefront of the so-called “culture wars” and been a hot-button issue within religious and political circles. Many on the conservative side—those who view homosexuality as sinful—often point to Scripture to claim that what the Bible says is clear. Many on the liberal side—those who do not view homosexuality as sinful—either discount Scripture entirely or view it through a different interpretive lens, claiming that the historical and cultural context of those verses aren’t compatible with modern-day context.
Those Seven References: A Study of the References to ‘Homosexuality’ in the Bible and Their Impact on the Queer Community of Faith will not end the debate, but it is a helpful, clear, and concise apologetic in defense of the queer community of faith. Dwyer refrains from most cultural commentary, eschews political polemic, and instead focuses on historical-cultural exegesis of the seven texts where homosexuality is referenced. These texts are often used as “clobber passages” against LGBTQIA+ individuals but, by setting them in this interpretive context, Dwyer is able to show readers what he feels is a more likely interpretation—one that affirms the value and worth of our queer brothers and sisters.
As someone who has lived and worked in the evangelical church my entire life, I am well aware that even a discussion of this topic is often immediately shut down. The Bible is clear, and that’s that. But what if? What if the Bible’s clarity is only a result of our own preconceived biases? We should be willing to listen and learn, to come at our theological differences with love and understanding, knowing that our beliefs affect real people, created in God’s image, attempting to live out his will for their lives. It is outside the scope of this review to come to conclusion on the matter, but to simply evaluate Dwyer’s exegesis to determine if he cogently and engagingly defends his theses.
One of the most common allegations leveled against those who argue to affirm queerness is that they take a low view of Scripture and do not believe it to be authoritative. Dwyer strikes at this from the outset in his introduction, writing “I firmly believe that the Bible is the living and breathing word of God.” He continues, writing that about the need to truly understand the text—to not impose our cultural context onto it, but have an understand of the ancient context and how it applies within our modern one.
Genesis 19 & Judges 19
The first set of passages that Dwyer considers is Genesis 19 and Judges 19. These passages are considered in tandem because of their similarities. Genesis 19 details the town of Sodom accosting Lot’s home, demanding that he give his angelic visitors to them. Judges 19 details the town of Gibeah accosting the home of an unnamed man, demanding that he give his visitors to them.
The main thrust of Dwyer’s argument to both is that these passages are simply not about homosexuality. The context of these narratives does not match the modern-day context of a mutually-consenting, loving, monogamous relationship. Instead, these passages are about violent assault. In this context, sex is used a way of showcasing power. It is a method of degradation. It has nothing to do with same-gender sexual activity.
Dwyer also uses the Judges 19 passage to offer proof of this and lay out the literary parallels in the larger context of the Old Testament. In Judges 19, the people of Gibeah demand the Levite. Instead, he throws his female concubine out to them and they rape her. To Dwyer, this is proof that the men of the city were not even specifically seeking a homosexual encounter. The Judges passage also shows how reprobate the nation of Israel had become. They are engaging in the same practices that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. These passages are not a condemnation of homosexuality, but of sexual abuse and violent rape. Dwyer is clear, thorough, and exceptionally compelling.
Leviticus 18 & 20
The next segment of passages comes from the book of Leviticus. Both of these condemnations come from singular verses and rarely does one find these passages discussed contextually. Dwyer begins with a short history of the Pentateuch and the Levitical law, in particular. He writes that “The predominant topic in the book of Leviticus in holiness…” and situates chapters 17-26 are part of the Holiness Code meant for the people of Israel as a way of setting themselves apart from the surrounding nations. Thus, even if these prohibitions against homosexuality do apply to consensual, loving relationships, they only apply contextually within the chosen nation of Israel. Dwyer only sort-of implies this, making it a pseudo-argument that’s not really compelling.
Dwyer also comes from the perspective that Leviticus was written and edited after the fact. That is, rather than a document written in the time of Moses, Dwyer believes Leviticus to have been written during the Babylonian Exile to a people “seeking an understanding for that banishment.” This is probably the weakest of Dwyer’s arguments, and it highlights his inability to make these passages seem any less than the prohibitions they are. Dwyer simply drops the late date for Leviticus as a fact, which just won’t do when many of those who told to a non-affirming position would also not accept a late date on Leviticus.
Finally, Dwyer’s gets to an actual dissection of the passage, showing how it’s very difficult to translate linguistically, noting that it is the only time that the Hebrew words mishkab shakab are used together, making for an awkward translation of “With a male you are not to lie (after the manner of) lying with a woman.” He points out that neither word is the typical word for sexual conduct in Leviticus. Dwyer’s conclusion is that the passage is about power and shame—that a man should not act as a woman. His overall conclusion is that, as the passage is separate from the “uncovering the nakedness” passages in the same chapter, whatever male/male activity this referenced was perceived differently that sexual relations.
In the end, Dwyer’s conclusions of these passages are much the same as his conclusions in Genesis/Judges: “Sexual conduct was predominantly about taking, power, and what we would today consider rape.” However, in these passages, his arguments are much weaker and not as convincing. While his whole point has been about the need to read Scripture in context of its history and culture, he now moves to an argument that we cannot remain in such a repressive context “remembering God created out of love, not restriction or dislike.” Moving to this argument is just not convincing, especially for those whom Dwyer needs to convince.
Moving into the New Testament, Dwyer focuses on the three Pauline passages that reference homosexuality: Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, and 1 Timothy 1.
In Romans 1, Dwyer makes a convincing argument that the sexual activity being described is non-consensual. Paul uses the word chresis, which means to use or function as. In other words, Paul is condemning the use of people for sexual purposes: “There is nothing in the selection of this word that steers toward an understanding of mutuality in the sexual activity being described.” It’s the misuse of power and authority that Paul is condemning, not the homosexual activity.
For 1 Corinthians 6, Dwyer focuses on the famous term oute malakos oute arsenokoites, giving examples of different translations to show how wildly different they are—and thus how difficult a phrase this is to interpret. His conclusion is that Paul is sarcastically using malakos a pejorative, saying that it’s “unmanly” (as it referred to a passive sexual participant) to act in a sinful way. However, given its connection to aresenokoites—which Dwyer admits refers to an active sexual participant—it seems unlikely to me that Paul is referring to these two connected words but using one metaphorically as a pejorative and the other literally. However, Dwyer does point out that, again, the sexual activity Paul is speaking toward is more likely about abuse and power imbalance and the sexual abuse of slaves and the lower class.
1 Timothy 1 is the last reference and, like the others, Dwyer’s final conclusion is that the passage is about power imbalance and not consensual, loving relationships. The weakest part of this section is that Dwyer does not recognize 1 Timothy as genuinely Pauline. It completely undercuts his argument, as he doesn’t really offer evidence of that, and it isn’t convincing to those to whom Dwyer needs to convince.
Overall, Those Seven References is mixed bag in terms of efficacy. Dwyer’s arguments are at their strongest when he focuses on these texts as a condemnation of sexual abuse and their weakest when he asserts that certain parts of Scripture are not genuine or written after the time period they claim.
Dwyer is also left with the fact that there’s nothing that affirms queerness, either. The argument becomes one from silence, as Scripture only portrays homosexual activity in abuse or violent ways. Positive sexuality is still seen as heterosexual. Dwyer’s focus on the seven references provides a context to rethink the condemnatory view that has often been taken, but fails to develop any positive theology of queerness. That might have been intentionally out of the scope of Dwyer’s efforts, but the end result is that, even in the best case, there’s no clear direction forward.
In the end, Dwyer’s book is an important contribution to the topic of queerness and Scripture but cannot be taken alone. Some of his arguments are compelling. Some aren’t. Some are strong. Some aren’t. Some are clear. Some aren’t. It’s an important voice, not a perfect one, but one that deserves to be heard.