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Spring 2022 · Vol. 51 No. 1 · pp. 128–131 

Book Review

Marriage, Scripture, and the Church: Theological Discernment on the Question of Same-Sex Union

Darrin W. Snyder Belousek. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2021. 330 pages.

Reviewed by Jon C. Olson

Darrin Snyder Belousek, who teaches philosophy and religion at Ohio Northern University, wrote Marriage, Scripture, and the Church to facilitate theological discernment in the church on the moral status of same-sex union. His intended audience includes the whole church: pastors, elders, laity, scholars, teachers, college and seminary students, and leaders in denominational positions or parachurch institutions.

The book’s primary strength and innovation is to approach same-sex union within the framework of marriage, concerning which the church has developed a rich theology and tradition. Further, marriage is mentioned frequently throughout Scripture, as compared to relatively few biblical texts about same-sex behavior. Snyder Belousek argues that since the Bible and the church have always maintained that marriage is {129} the proper context for sexual activity, any question of sexual activity is a question of marriage.

Snyder Belousek lays out signposts for the church in continuing this rich theology of marriage: walk in the ancient paths, test everything, and draw from what is new and what is old. His approach assumes the primacy and relevance of Scripture, the responsibility of those arguing for change to justify their case, consistency and charity in interpretation, and the relevancy and insufficiency of experience. He demonstrates that same-sex union is not marriage as the church understands marriage, and that to approve same-sex union theologically necessarily distorts the form, figure, and function of marriage. He also notes where traditionalists have moved away from biblical ideals and standards in matters of heterosexual behavior.

The book’s second strength is that the author engages with many diverse views. He gives attention to hermeneutical arguments that the church has changed before and can change again and deals with various analogies and claims that seem to require the Spirit to contradict previously revealed truth. Sometimes he identifies current proposals with errors that have previously appeared in church history. For example, Snyder Belousek asserts that ancient Gnosticism denied the goodness of creation and in so doing, forbade marriage. Alternatively, Gnosticism believed that since the body is disposable, it can be used in any way. Snyder Belousek argues then that some of the modern defenses of same-sex sexual behavior repeat the errors of Gnosticism. By contrast, the orthodox consensus honors celibacy without rejecting marriage. One of the features of this book is that some of the more technical dimensions of such discussions are placed in extensive appendices available online.

A third strength is that Snyder Belousek discusses where we (he means Western society and church) have come from and where we are going. Regarding some related issues such as divorce, what yesterday was exceptional is today accepted by many credentialed church leaders as normative. The author makes a good case that this has already happened in some of the intractable disputes over sexuality in his own denomination, Mennonite Church USA.

A fourth strength lies in proposing the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 as a model for discernment. The Council was not a negotiation, and its decision was not a compromise, but drew upon Scripture, tradition, and experience. Snyder Belousek affirms the welcome of marginalized peoples as a faithful expression of the character of the gospel and the church, but critiques hospitality without holiness. Among those who have previously been excluded or marginalized, the author names {130} people with physical or mental disabilities, immigrants and refugees, and sexual minorities. Making the church a welcoming place requires repentance, a willingness to listen, and acknowledgment of the pain that has been caused. Jesus, who was even more restrictive than many Pharisees concerning sex and marriage, according to Snyder Belousek, is our model for crossing social boundaries, but he calls people to changed lives.

A fifth strength is incorporating the experience and witness of same-sex attracted (“gay”) Christians who uphold the church’s traditional sexual ethic of celibacy or sexual activity within man-woman marriage. Wesley Hill’s afterword represents and promotes such a viewpoint for the church. Hill directly addresses what he calls the “plausibility problem,” in which such a view is seen as so bizarre that there is no need to consider it. Hill argues that the problem here isn’t intellectual; rather, “it’s personal, communal, relational, moral” (290). People need to see individuals and communities that make it seem possible to live in that way. Hill advises for himself and other “traditional” Christians three things: (1) prioritize repentance and advocate for the wronged (he provides real examples); (2) recognize the call to an ascetic transformation of desire and reframe the church’s debate over same-sex relations accordingly; and (3) foreground the question of vocation. All of us need “a lifelong process of having our desires confronted, challenged, and transformed by the love of God in Christ” (295). Vocation is God’s call toward flourishing life. Hill thinks that gay, lesbian, and bisexual people have unique callings that further the love and beauty and justice of God’s world. Snyder Belousek and Hill offer a compelling vision which I believe is bracingly good news for our time.

The book contains endorsements by Mennonites, Protestants, and a Catholic, some of whom count themselves a sexual minority. It will be useful among all these groups. The book surely assists discernment, but discernment will likely not be at the level of denominations that have experienced prolonged conflict and are in process of splitting. It will be very helpful among any people that accept the author’s traditional hermeneutical assumptions. I believe they will find the book fair in its assessments and expectations for all people involved.

Marriage, Scripture, and the Church promises to be relevant for a long time. Many straight and gay God seekers who are alienated from churches that hold to a traditional sexual ethic will be attracted to congregations that discern how to integrate a robust theology of marriage.

Jon C. Olson is an epidemiologist with the Connecticut Department of Public Health and former adjunct faculty at the University of Massachusetts School of Public Health.

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