William J. Webb’s book, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals is a fantastic book for understanding how to interpret Biblical commands that will be especially satisfying for anyone who loves organization and precision. He outlines a precise rubric in a field of theological study that sometimes seems nebulous.

The hermeneutic he has developed and outlined in this book is a designed to reveal not only the intent of the scriptural teachings on various topics, but their movement. He argues that there is a “redemptive-movement hermeneutic” in scripture. Though the individual texts may at times seem unjust, within the framework of the overall teachings of the Bible and in comparison to surrounding cultures a picture emerges of God moving people closer to the ultimate goal: redemption.

Three specific topics are explored in order to demonstrate how Webb’s redemptive-movement hermeneutic works. They are of course the three groups in his title: slaves, women, and homosexuals. The title itself is an indication that Webb will not be sympathetic to LGBT people. The term “homosexuals” is almost exclusively used by those who have negative attitudes towards LGBT people or their sexuality.

On the topic of slaves and women Webb shows how the nation of Israel had greater permissiveness than the surrounding cultures, how there were moments of exception to the rules that devalued women and enslaved people, and how scripture would occasionally have “breakout” passages which undermined both slavery and the subjugation of women. He sees the topic of homosexuality, as he refers to it, as an unequivocal “no” in every instance, with Israel being more restrictive than surrounding cultures.

Reading though his book, it becomes quickly apparent that he spends very little time talking about same-sex sexuality in comparison to the other two topics. This underscores the reality that scripture speaks very little to the topic while there are scores of verses supporting slavery and the subjugation of women. Today, I imagine there would be a number of considerations brought up by James V. Brownson, Matthew Vines, and others which would demand Webb’s consideration. But since Webb’s book was published in 2001, those books hadn’t been written yet.

It’s also worth noting that Webb’s publisher was InterVarsity Press, the publishing wing of an organization that just last year (2016) decided to fire all people who believe that God affirms of same-sex relationships. In an environment with so little academic freedom, the conclusions are worth serious scrutiny.

I have the same problem with Webb’s work that I have with many books of non-affirming theology, they begin with modern questions about sexuality and read it back into the text to see if it affirms or condemns. The best approach to understanding scripture is to first be clear about what the text is talking about and why. Only then can we go about applying the meaning of that text to the modern situation. A flawed approach begins with the modern question instead of the ancient one.

Webb’s categories would also benefit from considering principles that can be drawn from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, in which Jesus described the Kingdom of God to which Webb’s redemptive hermeneutic is reaching. In his teachings, Jesus names love as the foundational concept scriptures. He reinterprets Old Testament laws in light of this principle.

Since Webb was addressing same-sex marriage, it would also have strengthened his book to look biblically at the concept of marriage. At some point, anyone who is engaged in the questions of the biblical morality of same-sex marriage must ask if such marriages are best informed by the many passages of scripture which speak at length to marriage, or the six which refer briefly to same-sex sexuality.

If we are to understand the biblical concept of marriage and the redemptive arc to which it is moving, would that arc be progressed or regressed by opening marriage up to couples of the same gender? That’s a question Webb never even feigned to ask.

Despite these limitations, I highly recommend this book. His underlying concepts are excellent, even if they aren’t always applied well to same-sex marriage. And it’s easy to see how these concepts can strengthen the case of those of us who believe in affirming theology.

Gender, Bible, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, by James V. Brownson

James V. Brownson is eminently qualified to write a book about. He is a professor of New Testament, has served as academic dean at Western Theological Seminary, and holds a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. His book, The Bible, Gender, and Sexuality is the first affirming book someone with serious theological inclinations should read.

Brownson’s study began when his son revealed that he was gay. Believing in the authority of scripture and describing himself as in the reform tradition, Brownson wanted to understand the will on God on the matter. As often happens, when someone he loved was suffering, he could no longer ignore the questions. He went about his study to understand the truth whatever it may be.

Brownson sets out to examine the underlying moral logic of prohibitions against same-sex sexuality, arguing that such a step is essential when applying a text to one culture that originated in an entirely different culture. Without such work, religion would be incapable of progress.

Traditionalists have claimed two different themes of underlying moral logic to justify the absolute prohibition on same-sex relationships. The first is a social argument about complementarianism, that men and women have distinct roles to play and same-sex relationships are forbidden because these roles cannot be maintained. The second is biological complementarianism where men and women are biologically fitted to each other and capable of procreation.

Brownson deftly dispatches Robert Gagnon’s claim of biological fittedness in Genesis 1 & 2, pointing out that the “one flesh” statement is used of kinship ties and not the complimentary nature of male and female genitalia. He does so by pointing both to the simple meaning of the Hebrew vocabulary and a close exegetical analysis of the text. “One flesh” is also a term that God uses of his relationship with his people, it is a bond of kinship and not biological sex.

A careful examination of biblical understandings of marriage, sex, lust, celibacy, and family strengthen Brownson’s analysis and his critique of complimentarianism. His explanation of gender-based concepts of shame and honor in the New Testament and surrounding culture was easily the clearest, most helpful explanation of gender difference in sociological concepts of honor and shame that I have ever read.

Brownson’s treatment of Romans 1:26-27 is the high point of this work. His pedigree as a New Testament scholar shines clearly in this section. The exegetical, hermeneutical, and cultural material he brings into his analysis is superb.

One thing that could be challenging for some readers is that instead of making a single interpretation of Romans 1:26-27, he gives several compelling options. I agree with this approach. The text refers to something specific that the original audience would have immediately known. But from our viewpoint, there are many compelling ways to understand this passage that don’t involve universal prohibitions on same-sex sexuality.

The one critique I have is Brownson’s analysis of the levitical law. As a New Testament scholar, it isn’t surprising that this was his weakest point. In my experience, most books of affirming theology tend to take the Old Testament law less seriously than I would like. This is a reflection of Christianity at large which lacks a coherent understanding of the purpose, structure, and application of Old Testament laws and instead tends to dismiss them.

The logic of the book not only challenges traditional interpretations, Brownson builds to an underlying moral logical for sex and marriage that is cogent and compelling. Rather than simply allowing for same-sex marriage for the sake of compassion, Brownson clarifies the biblical ethic for sexuality and marriage. He summarizes, “People are not to say with their bodies what they cannot or will not say with the whole of their lives” (p. 109). That’s the foundation of biblical sexuality and marriage.

Brownson speaks to the true heart of biblical marriage, which is expressed in commitment and a sexual ethic defined by the giving of one’s self to another in a reciprocal and self-sacrificial kinship bond. He argues that such a bond is compatible with same-sex marriage, though it is not compatible with the sexual liaisons described in the bible’s six passages addressing same-sex sexual activity.

Bible, Gender, Sexuality is a true achievement. Brownson’s critiques and theological contributions make his book a must read for anyone interested in this topic.