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Review of Mel White’s 'What the Bible Says—and Doesn’t Say—about Homosexuality'

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Some readers may recognize the name of Mel White. But before I discuss his book, I wish to share a part of my background in how I view homosexuality. A couple of decades ago, a young man who had been in my youth group (when I was a youth director at Mariner’s Church in Newport Beach, CA) told me something that caused my views to do a 180. I was visiting California one summer while I was a master’s student at Dallas Seminary. At that time, George confided in me that he was a homosexual. But he added, “I’ve never committed any homosexual acts.” His was only a predisposition, not a behavior. It opened my eyes to understanding the issues a lot better. Sadly, some time after that meeting (about a year later, if I recall correctly), George committed suicide. The temptations were so great but he was unwilling to commit any homosexual act. And he didn’t want to bring shame on his Lord by doing so.

One thing I learned from this tragic incident was that the Christian church was doing a very poor job at loving homosexuals. There is a difference between loving someone who has a problem (we ALL have those!) and loving someone who is living in sin. George wasn't living in sin, but he did have a problem. And part of the problem was that he couldn’t talk to anyone about what was going on, he had no support network of Christians, only condemnation. With this background in mind, I looked at White’s latest book.

Mel White was a ghostwriter for several Christian leaders, including Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell. After years in ministry, working for the religious right, he came out of the closet. He and his wife divorced, though she is still good friends with him and is supportive of his new ministry. In 1995 he penned Stranger at the Gate: To be Gay and Christian in America (New York: Plume). This is an important book about his own personal struggles of being two things that many evangelicals would claim cannot be true of one person: gay and Christian. Mel and his partner, Gary Nixon, then started a website, Soulforce.org, which portrays Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. on the web pages—symbolizing men who “developed inner lives while working to transform society.” Non-violent transformation is vital to their undertaking. In this, they are certainly acting much more Christian than many who oppose their views. And they are to be applauded for such a stance.

In his Stranger at the Gate, White doesn’t spend much time defending his views biblically. But he wrote what appears to be a follow-up volume (there is no date on it) that does just this. Available only at Soulforce.org, What the Bible Says—and Doesn’t Say—about Homosexuality is a 24-page booklet that can be purchased or downloaded. On the main page at Soulforce, we are told that this work is the “most popular item” for sale. Since it is easily accessible, I will only comment on a few items in the booklet. In particular, I wish to focus on White’s exegesis of Romans 1.26-27.

First, White brings up several good and important points about the awful hatred within the Christian community toward gays. The booklet opens with pictures of homosexuals who have been murdered (some, apparently, by zealous, misguided Christians). Such atrocities are utterly inexcusable and he’s right to point that out. I had no idea about most of those incidents. I can’t tell you how ashamed I am of many who call themselves Christians for treating other human beings like that!

Second, he uses a lot of anecdotal arguments about this inexcusable behavior, but that is not really a substantive argument. We could just as easily speak about the Crusades, slavery, the treatment of women, etc. None of the anecdotes deal with the heart issue, namely, what the Bible says about homosexuality. Still, it’s fine for him to use these to get an emotional appeal going before he dives into his argument. Good preachers do it all the time. But some preachers do it as a way to offer a smokescreen on the real issues, getting people softened up for what they will say next. I’m not against the tactic per se, but just needed to note that Mel White is good at it. Very good at it. Obviously, he recognizes the need to create sympathy to the plight of homosexuals in America—a plight often due to the vitriolic reaction of the religious right—before he tries to build his case. But it is crucial that the reader not let the extreme and twisted hatred of some Christians (and especially some who think they are Christians) define what the religious right is all about. Further, I am not interested in defending the religious right or the religious left in this brief essay. I am concerned only about what the Bible says about the issue and how we should adjust our lives to it. Thus, we will have to examine what White says about the biblical evidence to see if his anecdotes are valid.

Third, he overstates his case in a couple of key areas. His emphasis in this pamphlet is that we need to reexamine the Bible to see what it says. At the beginning of his work, he writes in large, bold print, “LIKE YOU, I TAKE THE BIBLE SERIOUSLY!” Under his first premise, which bemoans biblical ignorance in America, he says, “Only six or seven of the Bible’s one million verses refer to same-sex behavior in any way” (p. 4). That is misleading on two fronts: (a) there are nowhere near one million verses in the Bible. The exact count is actually just over 31,000! That’s a far cry from one million, and it raises a disturbing issue: If White can be so cavalier, so loose with the data, about the very thing that he says we all need to pay more careful attention to, perhaps he hasn’t done his homework as he said he did. (b) Regardless of how many verses there are in the Bible, one can’t play games with what it addresses on this issue. I could pick on a host of topics that are addressed in only one or two verses. That doesn’t make the statements about such topics any less authoritative. It just makes them less talked about.

Fourth, his fourth premise is flawed: “The Bible is a book about God—not a book about human sexuality” (p. 8). Actually, the Bible is a book about God’s relation to human beings and his instructions for how we are to relate to each other. The problem with how White has stated this fourth premise is that he seems to want to say that the Bible doesn’t really deal with homosexual behavior as we understand it today. Yet all through his booklet he also argues that the Christian faith is about love for one’s neighbor. You can’t have it both ways. If the Bible is only a book about God, then why even mention how we should relate to each other? And as for sexuality, I think the Bible speaks very much to this issue. It starts in Genesis by laying out a pattern of behavior that God has designed. If sexuality is at the core of our being, and therefore very much a part of how we relate to each other, then even to speak about God’s love for humanity or our love for each other implicitly involves our sexuality. For the most part, one cannot be human without being a sexual creature.

He goes on to dismiss the Bible’s teaching about several things related to marriage and sex. But he’s really doing a Cuisinart reading of these texts. By mixing the Old Testament commands with the New Testament commands, he’s not wrestling with the progress of revelation or the likelihood that we are no longer under the law. Yet all of the passages he discusses here (Deut 22.13-21, 22; Mark 10.1-12; Lev 18.19; Mark 12.18-27; Deut 25.11-12) are speaking about OT law (even the ones in Mark). My concern here is not simply over small quibbles. It’s over the very thing that White says many Christians are doing incorrectly: carefully reading the Bible. On the one hand, we don’t have the right to pick and choose what we want to believe. On the other hand, we need to nuance our faith so that we are in line with progressive revelation, especially the revelation that has come through God’s Son. I take it as axiomatic that Christians are not under the Mosaic Law. The NT gives plenty of evidence to this effect. This means that we need to look carefully at the NT passages that address homosexuality especially. (And I don’t mean NT passages that are really reflecting on OT law, such as in the Gospels.) I also take it as axiomatic that there are certain universal principles that are still in force. These would be pre-Mosaic law principles that were never altered by the law. And this is why Genesis 1 is so important for Paul in his argument in Romans 1: he doesn’t appeal to Leviticus, since we are no longer under the law. But he does appeal to Genesis 1 as his fundamental starting point for dealing with homosexuality. Since Genesis 1 occurred before the Mosaic Code was given, its principles are universal in scope.

Fifth, the fifth premise also seems a little off: “We miss what these passages say about God when we spend so much time debating what they say about sex” (p. 10). It’s not an either/or: the Bible is about both God and man, about God’s relation to man, and about human beings’ relation to one another. White’s treatment of Genesis 1 is simply unconvincing precisely at the key word “natural.” White argues that some Christians see in Genesis 1 that it is “natural” for a man and woman to have sex and bear children, and thus “some people think this means gay or lesbian couples are ‘unnatural.’” This is the word that Paul camps on in Romans 1 (though it’s not used in Genesis 1) as the basis for his proscription against homosexual behavior. By bringing in examples of childless couples, White really misses the point. The focus of Genesis 1 is that God designed men and women to live in a sexual union with one another. Frankly, I could extend his argument (coupled with the one above about the paucity of texts dealing with homosexuality) in a different direction. Since the OT specifically forbids bestiality, but this is not prohibited explicitly in the NT, does that make it OK? I don’t know if White would have an answer for that, but Paul would: again, he appeals to Genesis 1 as the norm, the pattern. Further, Gen 2 is in the background: When God asked Adam to name the animals, he soon began to recognize that they were paired sexually. God did not find an animal suitable for Adam—not even for a little while until he could create Eve. There is no hint that such would be acceptable, which I am sure even White would agree with. Further, the way in which narrative theology is constructed is quite different from didactic theology. One is supposed to discern the patterns, the types, the principles that grow out of the story. So, here’s a question for pro-gay exegetes: On what basis would they condemn bestiality? Those who hold that the NT is the norm for us today, and that NT writers appeal to universal commandments that are embedded within the Mosaic Covenant, as well as universal patterns and principles that are prior to Moses, have a simple and direct answer: bestiality is wrong because it is outside the pattern of God’s design in Gen 1-2. Again, although this is implicit in Genesis, the implicit argument is precisely what Paul uses in Romans 1.

I’ll skip over the rest of the OT texts because White makes a partially good point about the Sodom narrative (though not completely), and because the rest of the OT texts that deal with homosexuality are not directly applicable to us today. But then he moves onto the NT texts and here, I think, he gets into trouble.

Sixth, his treatment of Rom 1.26-27 leaves a lot to be desired. He argues that the only people Paul had in view were temple priests and priestesses. It may be true that they were on his radar, but it’s hardly the whole picture. Further, where does it say that only these folks are in view? That’s an assumption that White brings to the text. Yes, Paul knew of the orgies at the pagan temples, but he also knew of other kinds of perversions. Indeed, drunken orgies in which people experiment with each other’s bodies is almost surely not the focus of this passage. White assumes that it is, but there is no evidence that Paul is restricting his exegesis to just these folks. For one thing, White implies that those who would do these things would experiment in many different ways, coming back to their former practices at another orgy. He asked us to “read the passage again,” but he doesn’t do this here. Rather, he assumes that just reading the passage will clear things up. I think it does, but not in the direction he wants to take it. Paul’s indictment against same-sex relations among women first notes that these women exchanged the natural sexual relations for that which is unnatural. The key terms here are in italics. The exchange that these women did was more than a momentary experimentation, which they would revert back from in more sober times. No, it’s the same exact word that is used in v. 25 for people exchanging the truth of God for a lie. That’s not something done on a whim; it’s a lifestyle decision, not one you easily retreat from. And the exchange in v. 25 is most important: if the immediate result of exchanging the truth of God for a lie is all sorts of sexual perversion (including heterosexual perversion), then, by definition, Paul is saying that when someone makes the commitment to a homosexual lifestyle (or to a perverted heterosexual lifestyle), this commitment is against the truth of God.

One of the problems for pro-gay exegesis in this text is that it doesn’t take just one form. And one of the usual marks of a weak argument is this: If those who argue for one position are all over the map, it may be because every time a new theory is put forth that supports their overall view, and then gets shot down, they are scrambling for another explanation that justifies the outcome. There are numerous pro-gay interpretations of this text, and White’s isn’t even on the short list. If it doesn’t make it to the short list, then perhaps even other pro-gay exegetes see some problems in it. How well does the standard pro-gay exegesis in Rom 1.26-27 do in this passage? The standard pro-gay view is to see pederasty here. That also is quite unlikely, but at least it’s more likely than temple priests and priestesses as the only ones in view. It’s unlikely because (a) Paul starts by discussing women having sex with women (v. 26), and that was all but unheard of in the ancient world when it came to pederasty; (b) Paul then speaks of men with men, but says that these men “abandoned the natural sexual relations with the females.” Abandoned is a strong word, suggesting that this was a lifestyle change. But again, this won’t work for pederasty: unmarried nobles would have sex with pre-teen boys, usually slaves, until they got married. Pederasts, thus, abandoned sex with boys for sex with their wives. That’s just the opposite of what Paul is describing. But it seems to be similar to what we see today: men who abandon their wives for their homosexual partners. (c) They burned in their own passions “for one another.” The reciprocal punishment suggests reciprocal responsibility, but this too could not be true of the slave-boys in a forced pederast scenario.

Others argue that “natural” (vv. 26, 27) mean “natural inclination.” (This is implicitly what White argues for, too.) Thus, if a person has a natural inclination to homosexuality it would be a sin for him to abandon that and go for the unnatural inclination. The only problem with this view is twofold: (a) Paul does not address whether homosexual inclination is even possibly to be considered as a natural inclination; (b) that which is natural is not inclination at all, but what is designed. And this gets back to the Genesis record on which Paul so heavily depends for his argument. God designed men and women to be sexual creatures that would be compatible only with each other—not men with men, not women with women, not humans with animals, etc. “Natural” thus refers to physical design, not psychological inclination.

Now, White is correct about the sequence of events: idolatry led to adultery. This is the argument of vv. 23-24. But where I think he’s missed the point is that v. 25 explicitly says that people abandoned the truth of God for a lie, and this prompted God to ‘hand them over’ to homosexual acts. Further, his solicitation of Rev. Dr. Louis Smedes backfires. Smedes says, “the homosexual people I know do not lust after each other any more than heterosexual people do…” Elsewhere, Smedes uses clinical psychology (though he fails to mention those who would disagree with his assessment). Here he weakens his argument to the anecdotal level: ‘the people I know.’ The fact is that homosexual infidelity is significantly higher than heterosexual infidelity. For example, in a recent issue of The Advocate (a pro-gay magazine), 20 percent of those surveyed had had 51-300 different sex partners in their lifetime, with an additional 8 percent having had more than 300.1 But if I were just to speak anecdotally as Smedes has done on this point, I would say that I have known many homosexuals who simply can’t reign it in. Their addiction to sex is far worse than that of most heterosexuals.

In sum, Rom 1.26-27 almost surely is speaking generically about homosexual behavior, and is condemning it absolutely. It is not restricted to temple prostitutes, nor pederasts, nor is it implicitly excusing those with a “natural inclination” toward homosexuality. The language is very clear that these specifics are not on the horizon. And the basis for the argument, once again, is Genesis 1. Paul in fact uses the language of Genesis 1 to drive this point home: he doesn’t say ‘men’ and ‘women’ but ‘male’ and ‘female,’ words taken directly out of Gen 1.26. He is bringing his audience to the pattern that God set up in the garden as that which should govern our lives today. Anything that deviates from that pattern is sin.

Seventh, White’s exegesis of 1 Cor 6.9 and 1 Tim 1.10 is, frankly, a whitewash over the real meaning of the text. He speaks of the ambiguity of malakos and arsenokoites. But he doesn’t mention that the authoritative lexicon of the NT, known as BDAG, does not speak so ambiguiously. This lexicon has about a 120-year history, over which time the scholars putting it together have been able to compile plenty of illustrations for the Greek of the NT. To be sure, there are places where the meaning is quite ambiguous. Because of their scholarly reputation, they do not hesitate to mention doubts about the meaning of a word if there are any. What do they say about these words then? For arsenokoites they note that it means “a man who engages in sexual activity w. a pers. of his own sex.” They add “pederast” as a second meaning, which would depend on the context (viz., if boys were in view rather than adult males). White is correct that this term should not be translated “homosexual” and that there is no ancient Greek word for “homosexual.” But that is a far cry from saying that there was no concept of homosexuality because the Greeks didn’t use just one word for it! That is to make a lexical-conceptual equation that was debunked nearly fifty years ago. To take one example: Eskimos don’t have a single word for snow. Does this mean that they don’t know what snow is? Rather, precisely because they have multiple words for snow indicates that they were well aware of it, even to understanding it in its various states. The arsenokoites was the active partner in male sex. The malakos was the passive partner in such sex acts. BDAG is unequivocal on both of these points. Incidentally, BDAG also notes that “Paul’s strictures against same-sex activity cannot be satisfactorily explained on the basis of alleged temple prostitution… or limited to contract w. boys for homoerotic service.” In a brief sentence, backed up by serious studies, BDAG has shown that White’s major premises (for both of these texts as well as for Rom 1.26-27) fall flat.

Eighth, I won’t go into the rest of what White has to say. He is right about very much of it. My only point here was to discuss what he said about the biblical texts. From where I sit, he hasn’t done his homework and he hasn’t been honestly seeking to find the truth. One thing I would like to ask him is this, “If you are really intent on finding the truth and you discover that the truth is not what you expected, how would you respond?” Of the studies I’ve seen on homosexuality, I’d say White’s is on the lower end of the scale as far as a biblical defense. I don’t say this to put him down. I say it to note that his arguments may seem convincing to a person not skilled in the biblical languages (and he notes his own credentials in this regard); he comes off as an expert. But to those who are skilled in Greek and Hebrew, and who understand the nature of God’s revelation and the progress of the unfolding drama of redemption with its culmination in Christ, White’s approach has virtually no merit. I can sympathize with what he says about attitude and acceptance to some degree, but I can’t accept his exegesis of the clear biblical teaching on these matters.

Finally, to be perfectly clear: I have no animosity against Mel White. I’m glad he put his views on the table. And I do deeply appreciate his plea for Christians to show some charity and love toward the homosexual community. My greatest fear is that some on the political and religious right may use this essay as justification to hate homosexuals. If they do this, they have not only missed my point, but are also sinning—and sinning grievously. White hints in his booklet that the church might do well to ask, “What if we’re wrong about judging homosexual behavior?” That is indeed a sober question. I took it seriously when teaching Romans at Dallas Seminary in the fall of 2006. Frankly, this question caused me to rethink my views on Romans 1. Was it possible that I had misunderstood what Paul was saying? This is the method I try to take when I do exegesis: I challenge my most deeply cherished beliefs as much as possible. I want to see if they will stand up to the heat. And if they can’t, I chuck ‘em. I was fully prepared to go that route with this issue, but as I got into the details of the text and compared it with the rather poorly argued pro-gay exegesis, I was more convinced than ever that Paul is making a blanket condemnation of homosexual behavior. Besides—and this is one thing that was never addressed in White’s book: If fornication is sin—that is, sex outside of marriage—wouldn’t that equally apply to heterosexual and homosexual relations? If Paul was not talking about homosexual behavior, shouldn’t he have sanctioned homosexual marriages? That thought never crossed his mind, nor Jesus’, and the silence is almost deafening. Is it really possible that God could have overlooked the needs of millions of homosexuals in the only book that is our final revelation of his will, just so that we could sort out what to do thousands of years later? At bottom, even if I were to adopt Mel White’s view, I would have to say any sexual activity between two people outside the bounds of marriage is immoral.

So, the shoe could be put on the other foot: What if he’s wrong that homosexual behavior is not acceptable before God? Isn’t it time that the Christian community rally around homosexuals and help them recover from this terrible plight that they can’t break free of? Isn’t it time that we showed them an outpouring of love, but nevertheless held firm on calling sin sin, on insisting that they can have fellowship in our churches just like any other sinners can as long as they are not living in sin? Christian homosexuals don’t like that response because it calls their lifestyle sin and says they need help. But I can’t see how the Bible sees it any other way. If Mel White is wrong, how should we respond?


1 The “sex survey” was posted on July 20, 2006 in The Advocate.

Related Topics: Homosexuality, Lesbianism, Sexual Purity