Editors note: the following book review appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Eikon.
Darrin W. Snyder Belousek. Marriage, Scripture, and the Church: Theological Discernment on the Question of Same-Sex Union. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021.
Darrin Belousek’s Marriage, Scripture, and the Church cannot not be quickly dismissed. His volume is well researched, historically informed, and logically rigorous. Belousek, professor of philosophy and religion at Ohio Northern University, examines the question of whether the church should reassess its view of marriage and bless same-sex unions, and builds a Scriptural, doctrinal, and historical argument that it should not do so. Yet, despite this strong stance, there is a deeply concerning flaw woven into Belousek’s language that, I fear, will make the book significantly harmful to the church and the cause of biblical marriage. The combination of Belousek’s strong argument for traditional marriage and his devastating concession to contemporary ideologies makes this book worthy of attention.
Belousek’s book is structured in four parts. Part One assesses the current landscape and lays out Belousek’s own commitments, Part Two lays out a biblical and historical case for traditional marriage, Part Three considers various “innovationist” (Belousek’s term) proposals for blessing same-sex marriage, and Part Four suggests Belousek’s way forward. The book also contains an afterword by Wesley Hill (to be considered below). Due to the limitations of this review, I cannot do justice to the middle two sections of Belousek’s book. Let me simply say that they mount a very rigorous defense of traditional marriage based on the “form, figure, and function” (those terms occur repeatedly) of marriage in Scripture and theology. Among these chapters, “Admiring Virginity, Honoring Marriage,” was especially helpful. Belousek surveys different views of marriage throughout church history, especially early debates about marriage, asceticism, and celibacy. Belousek makes clear that while there have historically been debates regarding whether marriage or celibacy represented the more desirable state, or how marriage related to God’s providential plans in the new era initiated by Christ, the church has always taught that marriage is between one man and one woman and that procreation is one of the intrinsic goods of marriage. This point should be underscored in current debates: the overwhelming consensus on this point throughout church history and throughout the global church suggests that modifications to the definition of marriage by Western Christians says more about the current cultural moment in Western Christianity than about Scripture or historical theology.
After making this strong argument, Part Three carefully considers counter-arguments for innovation. While I cannot detail all of these arguments, I found this section well written, charitable to other views, but biblically and logically unrelenting in its advocacy for traditional marriage. These strengths are, however, marred by a deep and persistent flaw in Belousek’s use of terms like “gay believer” or “sexual minorities.” As a case study, I will focus on the last chapter and Wesley Hill’s afterword.
In the final chapter, Belousek focused on the “testimonies of gay believers” who are committed to follow Christ (281). This leads into to a chain of reflections on Christ’s word to voluntary eunuchs in Matthew 19:12, Isaiah’s prophecy of the place of eunuchs in the new covenant in Isaiah 56:3-8, Paul’s doctrine of Christian unity in Christ regardless of ethnicity or sex in Galatians 3:28, and John’s vision of the new creation and the marriage of the Lamb in Revelation 21:1-4. According to Belousek, all of this should “refresh our vision of salvation and the church . . . straight and married believers will be saved the same way as gay and single believers, by the grace of Jesus. Regarding salvation in Christ, neither marital status nor sexual identity counts for us or against us — all that matters is faith working through love as we become a new creation by God’s power” (283). This conclusion is restated in similar form, using a Jerusalem council paradigm of “old” and “new” in the last paragraph of the book: “we discern what is new by listening to the testimonies of gay believers who are living faithfully and serving fruitfully as followers of Jesus . . . At the same time we discern what is old by looking into the treasury of Scripture and tradition: the consistent testimony of Scripture, confirmed by the authoritative teaching of Christ and conserved through the consensus teaching of the church, that God ordained marriage as man-woman monogamy and blessed sex within marriage” (287-288).
Nowhere in the book does Belousek addresses the validity of the “gay believer” or “sexual minority” category. Belousek does, however, provide a large amount of supplemental material online. On page eight of his online Appendix A, “Sexuality: Terminology and Theology,” he describes his concern with modern terminology based on contemporary understandings of sexuality, but argues that it is possible to use language like “gay” in two differing ways: ontologically (giving a normative definition of human sexuality) or phenomenologically (merely describing various kinds of human experiences without commenting on their normativity). He states that his use of such terminology is phenomenological and descriptive, not ontological and normative. Yet herein lies the problem: even “mere” phenomenological language does not come to us uninterpreted. Labels are not neutral, but imply an entire substructure of meaning. In other words, describing a category of human experience is an analytical act. Categories are interpretations. Why are sexual desires intrinsic to one’s identity, but not some other set of desires, or some other feature of human experience? Belousek seems to think that by defining his language as “phenomenological” he can bypass this problem. Thus, Belousek contends that the church should “allow and affirm marriages of mixed-orientation couples, man-woman couples of differing sexual attraction/orientation: gay man and straight woman, straight man and bisexual woman, and so on” (181). The problem, however, is not a debate over whether the church should bless “mixed-orientation” weddings; the problem is whether, biblically, such a thing exists at all. I suggest that the unquestioned acceptance of those terms is itself symptomatic of a deep problem.
This problem emerges even more clearly in the afterword written by Wesley Hill. Hill writes to the church with what he believes are necessary lessons to make traditional marriage plausible and good news to self-identified gay believers. These lessons begin with a call for repentance for the ways the church has mistreated LGBTQ Christians through “discrimination and rejection” (290), and end with a plea to “foreground the question of vocation” (295). When Hill speaks of vocation, he poses the question, “how should a gay man or woman live, how should a same-sex-attracted person like me express his sexuality, rather than merely repress or try to deny its existence” (296, emphasis original)? He says that, in much of his life in the church, he had not heard “much at all about what I might be called toward,” a proclamation of a vocational “yes” instead of a vocational “no” (296, emphasis original). But is this a failure of church teaching, or the hidden (perhaps even unrecognized on Hill’s part) demand that Scripture’s teaching address categories defined by culture?
Throughout Belousek’s work, I was reminded of a sentence in Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: “If sex-as-identity is itself a category mistake, then the narratives of suffering, exclusion, and refusals of recognition based on that category mistake are really of no significance in determining what the church’s position on homosexuality should be.” To be clear, Belousek is not calling for the church to rethink its position; but his work, and Hill’s afterword, simply accept the validity of what Trueman calls (rightly) a category mistake: allowing sexuality to define our identity. This issue is pastorally very challenging. The brother or sister in Christ who struggles with same-sex attraction has a valid point if they say, “I did not choose this struggle, yet it is a major part of my life story.” Yet part of the challenge of Christian discipleship in Western culture is for all of us to embrace the massively counter-cultural position that our identity is given to us, and defined for us, by God, in Christ, through Scripture. This means rejecting both the voluntarist strain of self-chosen identity or identities (here one confronts the trends that underly the “T” in the LGBTQ movement), and the sex-as-identity version that is assumed by Belousek and Hill. This is not to call us to a grudging acceptance of Scriptural terms for human identity and nature, even as we tacitly wonder if contemporary theories of identity give us a richer, more true-to-human-experience picture. Rather, it is to reject the imperialism of human terms and theories that are intrinsically reductionistic and simplistic. He who formed the hearts of us all discerns all our deeds (Psa 33:15), and in Scripture has given us all the self-knowledge we need for life and godliness.
A book review is not the place to develop an alternative vision of human identity, and without that it could sound as though I am engaging in verbal sniping, picking at aspects of Belousek’s word choices. My intent is to suggest a deeper critique than mere lexical nitpicking. Perhaps that concern can be made clear by considering two relevant moments in the church’s life: marriage services, and the Lord’s Supper. In blessing marriage, the church is not creating a new category of human relationship; rather, the church witnesses to the givenness of God’s created order by acknowledging that two have in God’s sight become one flesh. Belousek is strong on this point. But what about the church gathered at the table? Again, Belousek is clear that, regarding salvation, “neither marital status nor sexual identity counts for us or against us [instead we are] . . . male and female, married and single, straight and gay” (283). The last pair in that list is not like the others! And so we must ask: who are we as we come to the table? There are many factors that make up my present vocation —husband, father, pastor, etc. — and many sins and struggles which I confess and lay aside at the table; yet I do not come to the table defined by any those vocations, nor may I commune there while retaining my sin or defining myself by my struggles. To put it another way, in blessing marriage, the church witnesses to the created order; in celebrating the Lord’s Supper, the church witnesses to the coming eschatological order as the consummation of our present salvation. But there are no additional categories by which we may define ourselves as the Lord’s people. Belousek and Hill’s adoption of “sexual minority” language appears to me to be founded on an unstable third category. It is neither a creational given nor an eschatological destiny — and yet, Marriage, Scripture, and the Church consistently gives such identity categories a valid place among the people of God. Is “gay believer” a category of human experience that belongs to the creation order? If so, then Belousek’s entire defense of man-woman marriage is flawed. If it is not part of our created identity, then does it belong to our eschatological destiny? If so, then we would expect Scripture to address it explicitly. But it does not. Then how can we bring this identity to the table and ask Christ to bless it? What fellowship has light with darkness? What hath Jerusalem to do with Greenwich Village?
If this sounds like a vocation of “no,” then it may reflect how deeply we have allowed the “sex-as-identity” category to penetrate into our subconscious assumptions. If sexuality is so pervasive a part of human identity that, unless Scripture and the church speak to all possible sexual identities, we cannot have full and flourishing human lives, then what are we to make of the elderly widow who worships, sits under the Word, and takes the Lord’s Supper week by week? Is she somehow incomplete, lacking in personhood, unable to flourish as God intended? I can think of several such saints who would vehemently contest such a view — or, better yet, whose joyful demeanor and daily walk with Christ gives the lie to our truncated modern views of personhood.
Perhaps, living amidst a world obsessed with youth, sexuality, and self-expression, we could all learn something about Christian identity from the church’s elderly widows.
Josh Blount is Pastor at Living Faith Church in Franklin, West Virginia, and is a PhD candidate at Westminster Theological Seminary.
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