A Letter to the Bishops and Deputies of the
73rd General Convention in Denver, Colorado
June 15, 2000

Dear Bishops Stanton and MacPherson, and Deputies to the 73rd General Convention,

It is not often that I turn my energies from ministry within the local parish to address the increasingly wearisome controversies of the larger Church. Yet my study of a report in the recently released Blue Book has so offended my academic and professional sensibilities, that I feel compelled to express my concerns to you as one of your constituents within the Diocese of Dallas.

The report to which I refer is the Liturgy and Music Commission's"Theological Aspects of Committed Relationships of Same-Sex Couples," which culminates in the Commissioners proffering of Resolution A065 (Blue Book, pp. 205-232). More specifically, I was troubled by the essay on "Scripture" written by my colleague William Countryman (pp. 209-212), with whom I have been a fellow member in the Association of Anglican Biblical Scholars for several years.

Inside this essay, Countryman offers short analyses of scriptural verses dealing with the issue of sexual relationships between people of the same gender. In each case, he confidently presents as valid conclusions claims which are not, in fact, currently sustainable within the academic field of Biblical Studies. It is these claims that I would here like to briefly review, along with some concluding comments about the representativeness of the overall report.

Countryman issues the first of his many dismissals of scripture in his characterization of the Sodom and Gomorrah story, stating that this story has been discarded as evidence that the "Bible condemns same-sex sexual activity . . . since other Biblical references to the story never make such a connection" (p. 210). While it is true that other Biblical allusions condemn the cities for an array of sins, which are often not spelled-out (e.g., Matt 10:15, 11:23-24; Luke 10:12, Rom 9:29), surely Ezekiel's mention of the "abominations" of Sodom (Ezek 16:47) is a reference to the Levitical prohibitions against same-sex sexual relations, which are there condemned with the same infrequently used Hebrew word, toe'bah, "abomination" (Lev 18:22, 20:13).

Certainly this was the understanding of two Jewish contemporaries of Jesus, Josephus and Philo, who both comment on the Genesis passage. The latter, for instance, characterizes such relations as "unnatural and forbidden intercourse" (On Abraham, 27.137), while the former asserts that God destroyed Sodom because the Sodomites "were bent only on violence and outrage to the youthful beauty" of Lot's two guests (Antiquities 1.200-201). Clearly, these views are representative of the Jewish interpretation of this passage in the First Century; it is no accident that early Christian writers adopted this position and even coined the term "sodomy" to speak of intercourse between males.

In his next paragraph, Countryman discusses the prohibitions from Leviticus (Lev 18:22, 20:13), already mentioned above. Noting that the passages fall within Israel's Purity Code, he argues that they are no longer applicable to Christians since "New Testament writers treat [the code] as no longer binding on gentile (and perhaps even Jewish) Christians."

Here, one must at once question whether the contemporary Church must completely remove the Purity Code from the realm of theological reflection. For instance, recent discussion of the forgiveness of international debt has frequently appealed to the biblical Year of Jubilee-a commandment also found in the Levitical Purity Code (Lev 25, 27; see, e.g., The Official Report of the Lambeth Conference, pp. 353-361)!

Beyond this, it is important to note that one of the passages Countryman cites as repealing the Purity Code-Acts 15-actually retains the prohibition against porneia (Acts 15:20, 29)-a blanket term frequently used in the NT to describe sexual acts outside of heterosexual marital relationships (e.g., Matt 19:9).

The normative quality of heterosexual marriage in the Bible is strongly challenged by Countryman in his ensuing treatment of Gen 2:24, "a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh." While observing that Christians have taken this as a positive commandment, Countryman argues that the passage "can equally well be read simply as an etiological story, telling how the institution of marriage came into being." Absent entirely from his discussion, however, is the point that Jesus himself did not interpret the passage etiologically, but normatively (Mark 10:5-9, Matt 19:4-6), providing an ethical basis for the institution of monogamous, heterosexual marriage in the subsequent teachings of the Church, including those in our own Book of Common Prayer (BCP pp. 423, 861).

Moving into the New Testament, Countryman comments on the use of the term arsenokoites (NRSV, "Sodomites") used in two vice lists (1 Cor 6:9, 1 Tim 1:10), stating "there is no evidence to show what it actually meant to speakers of Greek in the first century." Actually, New Testament translators and commentators are in general agreement that the term is a Greek rendering of the Rabbinic Hebrew phrase mishkav zakur, "lying with a male" (from Rabbinic commentary on Lev 18:22 and 20:13), as can be seen from breaking the Greek word into its constituent parts, arsen, "male," and koite, "sexual intercourse." The sense is especially obvious when it stands next to the word malakoi, as it does in 1 Cor 6:9, since this Greek term routinely referred to the "effeminate" partner in same-sex sexual liaisons (for a discussion, see, e.g., Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, pp. 242-244).

Countryman renders a similar dismissal of the last New Testament text he considers, Romans 1:18-32, stating, "nowhere is there evidence to show what [the text] actually meant to speakers of Greek in the first century" (p. 211). Strictly speaking, this is true-but only because we have no First Century commentaries on Romans! To the earliest extant Greek commentators, however, Paul's referents were clear. Thus John Chrysostom, remarking upon Paul's allusion to lesbian behavior in v. 26b, writes that women who "seek this sort of intercourse, ought to have more shame than men" (Ep. ad Romanos Hom 4.1).

Similarly perplexing is Countryman's comment that while "Paul describes same-sex sexual intercourse between men (and possibly between women) as unclean and disgraceful . . . Paul does not specifically identify it as sinful." But surely this is splitting theological hairs, for while Paul may not have used the label "sin," he clearly saw such activities as the consequence of "Sin" (i.e., fallen humanity; vv. 18-21).

It should also be noted that Paul's reference in these verses about lesbian behavior renders problematic the common argument used by many scholars (though not here by Countryman) that biblical writers only condemned the most prevalent homosexual practice of the day: male pederasty.

Countryman concludes his essay with an appeal to the Articles of Faith: "whatsoever is not read (in scripture) nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man" (Art. VI). From this he reasons that "the Bible, taken as a whole, is not definitive enough to demand a negative judgment on the present subject." Yet here it should be pointed out that this argument should really be turned on its head: those who seek to change radically the Teachings of the Church bear the burden of proof in the face of the Tradition's interpretation of scripture. For while treatments of scripture such as Countryman's may to some blunt the force of scriptural prohibitions against same-sex sexual behavior, they are much less successful in adducing from scripture positive examples of such behavior.

This separates this enterprise from the earlier shift of the Church's Teaching with respect to the ordination of women, as in the latter case responsible interpreters could point to the examples of Phoebe, Junia, Priscilla, Euodia and Syntyche, for instance (though not all might agree on the force of these).

In contrast, Countryman's reading of scripture on this issue provides no positive guidance from scripture whatsoever. I do not mean to trivialize or inflame this debate, but it is worth noting that one could apply Countryman's same logic to nullify another biblical prohibition of sexual behavior-that of bestiality: the Genesis commandment to marry heterosexually is simply an etiological story, the prohibition is superseded because it is found within the Levitical Purity Code (Lev 18:23), and neither Jesus, Paul nor any other New Testament writer explicitly mentions the topic.

My point here is not to link the practice of homosexuality with that of bestiality; rather, it is to observe that Countryman's radically minimalist reading of scripture essentially strips the Bible of any role in defining ethical sexual behavior. Scripture is thus consigned to the dustbin with respect to this entire realm of human conduct.

A more exegetically honest approach would be to acknowledge the prohibitions of Scripture and Tradition against homosexual practice-and their lack of positive commandment in this respect-but to argue that our current experience has moved us beyond these. This seems to be the position of Richard Norris (Blue Book, pp. 212-215), who, while not discussing the Tradition's judgments on this issue at all, instead essentially defines Tradition as past experience that can be superseded by current understanding. Bishop Bennison's essay (pp. 215-220) also unabashedly takes this approach when he argues that present experience should be given greater precedence than Scripture, Tradition or Reason.

Yet even here the Commission fails, for if we were to take present experience as the supreme arbiter on this matter, then we must define experience as the guidance of the Holy Spirit as manifested in the great diversity of the entire Church. Yet that diversity is not at all evident in the collection of scholars writing essays for this report, for uniformly they are all well-known "liberals" (for want of a better word) with respect to this issue. Similarly, their bibliographies clearly reflect this bias, omitting the diversity of scholarly opinion which, in some cases, places them in the minority within the academy.

More tellingly, while the Introduction of the Report culls from the recent Lambeth Report statements seemingly sympathetic to the liberal position (Blue Book, pp. 207-209), it glaringly omits the paragraph which states: "It appears that a majority of bishops is not prepared to bless same sex unions or to ordain active homosexuals. Furthermore many believe there should be a moratorium on such practices" (Lambeth Report, p. 94). Likewise, the Report makes no reference at all to the now well-known Lambeth Resolution 1.10, which was approved by the overwhelming majority of Bishops present.

Thus it would appear that the Commission, with its strong bias toward experience as the arbiter of Church Teaching, only wishes to present to the General Convention the experience of a select minority of voices within the Church.

It is for the preceding reasons that I ask you not only to vote against Resolution A065 or any other resolution which does not keep with the spirit of Lambeth Resolution 1.10, but also to insist that in the future the Commission on Liturgy and Music be much more representative of the diversity of opinion within the Church on this matter.

Thank you for your attention to the concerns expressed above. Please know that my prayers are with you as General Convention convenes next month.


The Reverend Donald D. Binder, PhD

Assistant to the Rector, St. John's Episcopal Church
Chaplain, St. John's Episcopal School
Adjunct Professor of New Testament, Southern Methodist University