“To Melt a Golden Calf” Book Review

Books on Christianity and homosexuality are becoming a dime a dozen as both the culture war and ecclesiology wars rise to great heights.  When it comes to Jesus’ church, the debate over homosexuality has already and will, unless the Spirit intervenes, split congregations and denominations. 

While it may seem that the mantra “everything has been said but not everyone has said it” is true on this issue, I believe that more nuanced, helpful books have recently added layers to the conversation.  Tim Keller has favorably reviewed two books that do not merely espouse a traditional view on sexuality but also pave a way for gentle conversation and gospel-centered discipleship when it comes to homosexuals in the church.

Today, I am reviewing a book which takes a non-traditional perspective on this issue, but this particular work is creative in its own right to add some new elements to the discussion on homosexuality.  A good friend, Peter Aelred, has written a so-called evangelical case for same-sex relationships in To Melt a Golden Calf.  Peter finds his home in a PC(USA) church and leads a fruitful campus ministry.

Before reviewing this book, I should note that Peter is, for all intensive purposes, an ‘evangelical’ in his systematic theology.  He affirms the Apostles Creed, the necessity of regenerative faith, substitutionary atonement, justification by grace through faith, and salvation found in Christ alone.  Perhaps our largest theological divergence is our view of Scripture where I am comfortable with a paleo-orthodox view of inerrancy and Peter is neo-Orthodox/Barthian in his view.

So, in reviewing a book where I strongly disagree with the conclusion, I certainly do not doubt Peter’s Christian commitment or his basic orthodoxy on a majority of issues.  Indeed, hearing his testimony in wrestling with this issue made me more sympathetic to his position without embracing it.  I feel like I understand why he believes as he does, and that is a victory in itself when it comes to theological dialogue in the Presbyterian tradition.

The Basic Argument

Peter asserts the following in his case for same-sex relationships.

1. Church History is far from monolithic on sexual ethics and the biblical view of marriage, even seeing the ‘blessing’ of same-sex relationships until the 12th century.

2. The biblical texts dealing with same-sex relationships do not condemn same-sex relationships in all circumstances but are largely condemning same-sex relationships in polygamous and cultic contexts  (or even heterosexuals defrauding their sexuality in pretending to be homosexual).

3. Our experiential theology (think Wesleyan Quadrilateral, though Peter doesn’t reference this) has shown that the Holy Spirit is bearing fruit in same-sex Christian couples and that opposition to same-sex relationships has yielded depression and burden for LGBT folk.

4.  Even if same-sex relationships aren’t a part of God’s good plan for creation, its post-fall reality doesn’t make it necessarily sinful (e.g. eating meat, wearing clothes), and it is consistent with God’s creational mandate in Genesis 2:18 that man “should not be alone”, and thus it would be unjust for God to deny the permanent, involuntary orientation of homosexuals the blessedness of companionship through marriage.

5.  The history of western civilization (especially in our own country) shows that the population swells in support of justice issues such as the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, and the civil rights movement.  Unlike abortion (where in each generation the public opinion goes ‘back and forth’) the issues of same-sex relationships has received the same sort of ‘swelling’ of public support as a justice issue.

There are additional points made in To Melt a Golden Calf, but the above seem to be the most significant arguments.

What I Liked About To Melt a Golden Calf

The strongest portions of the book are Peter’s own testimony of how he shifted in his beliefs regarding homosexuality.  He grew up in a theologically conservative home.  His abandonment of the church lasted until college when he rediscovered Jesus and the church.  However, it wasn’t until a few years ago that Peter made a shift in his beliefs on same-sex relationships.  In summary, his relationships with LGBT Christians and their testimonies (whether feeling the burden of ‘forced celibacy’ or their peace from the Holy Spirit in pursuing same-sex relationships) drastically affected his approach to the Bible, and he found scholarship which supported a different reading of key texts in the Bible concerning homosexuality.

As someone who has spent the last 10 years in cities like Due West, south Charlotte, and Rock Hill, I don’t have the experience Peter has had in ministering to the LGBT community.  I admit to feeling for these individuals and their struggle through such a tough discipleship issue, but I don’t have the experience Peter has in ministering in such a context.

In addition, Peter makes the attempt (though imperfect in several places) to respect Christians who differ from him on this issue.  While I don’t think his solution at the end of the book is hopeful in terms of dialogue over this issue, I appreciate the respect Peter shows towards someone like me and not branding all of us with the dreaded ‘f’ word.

Finally, the brevity of the book is useful for this topic.  Peter is an engaging writer and his message is clear without being cluttered.  My blogging should take a lesson or two from To Melt a Golden Calf.

Critique of “To Melt a Golden Calf”

There are a number of areas where Peter would be well-suited to revisit if he were to publish a revision of this book.  First, Peter’s assumption of scholarly weight toward his argument is short-sighted.  His reliance on the Boswell thesis as to the church’s fuzziness in history on sexual ethics isn’t helpful as Boswell’s work on homosexuality in church history isn’t highly regarded by scholars (both secular and religious).  Indeed, Peter’s argument that the church has never taught with force against homosexuality as binding as they did with the Trinity is on shaky ground (p.  18).  Even if sexual ethics  isn’t codified in a creed, that doesn’t mean sex was never considered very, very important.  Church Historian Don Fortson helpfully summarizes the issue,

“Christianity is a tradition; it is a faith with a particular ethos, set of beliefs and practices handed on from generation to generation. The Christian tradition may be understood as the history of what God’s people have believed and how they have lived based upon the Word of God. This tradition is not only a collection of accepted doctrines but also a set of lifestyle expectations for a follower of Christ. One of the primary things handed down in the Christian church over the centuries is a consistent set of lifestyle ethics including specific directives about sexual behavior. The church of every generation from the time of the apostles has condemned sexual sin as unbecoming a disciple of Christ. At no point have any orthodox Christian teachers ever suggested that one’s sexual practices may deviate from biblical standards. Concerning homosexuality there has been absolute unanimity in church history; sexual intimacy between persons of the same gender has never been recognized as legitimate behavior for a Christian. One finds no examples of orthodox teachers who suggested that homosexual activity could be acceptable in God’s sight under any circumstances. Revisionist biblical interpretations that purport to support homosexual practice are typically rooted in novel hermeneutical principles applied to Scripture, which produce bizarre interpretations of the Bible held nowhere, never, by no one.”

No doubt, the most important topic in To Melt a Golden Calf is the exegesis of Scripture.  Peter interacts with the so-called ‘clobber passages’ (1 Tim 1:10; 1 Cor 6:9; Rom 1:26-27; Lev 18:22; 20:13; Gen 19:1-5) in addition to Genesis 2 and Matthew 19.  The basic argument is that these passages don’t condemn same-sex relationships in an unqualified manner.  Rather, Scripture is silent (and therefore, non-condemnatory) about monogamous, committed same-sex relationships.  Interestingly, Peter doesn’t claim that Lev 18:22; 20:13 are mere ceremonial laws as some pro-LGBT exegetes do, and he sees their connection to 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10.  However, the context for the Levitical laws as a polemic against the sexual practice of surrounding nations in fertility cults and orgies is incomplete at best.

The main problem with Peter’s exegesis is that some of the best advocates of same-sex relationships within Christianity disagree with Peter’s take.  Dan Via, professor Emeritus of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, admits in his book with Robert Gagnon that he agrees with the substance of Gagnon’s exegesis of the relevant texts.  His disagreement is on what to do with such texts given our modern, post-Enlightenment knowledge on sexual orientation.

Regarding Romans 1:21-31, I wish Peter had interacted with Via’s colleague, Richard B. Hays, another NT prof at Duke Divinity School.  Hays, in has magnum opus The Moral Vision of the New Testament convincingly argues that Paul’s point in Romans 1 is not that heterosexuals are acting like homosexuals (this would presume that Paul is working with a modern notion of sexual orientation, which a majority of LGBT advocates try to DENY is contained in Scripture and is where we need to creatively theologize with the text). I was confused as to how Peter read ‘orgies’ into the text (p. 59), and he misses the essential point that both Jews and Gentiles are contaminated with the same sinful nature and same propensity toward idolatry.  Contra To Melt a Golden Calf, Paul is not arguing that heterosexuals are acting like homosexuals.  Rather, as Hays argues, Paul is echoing the creation narrative of Gen 1-3 and how our sinful nature undermines the Creator’s design in sexual relations.

This also illumines the meaning of the word “exchange” in terms of rejecting the Creator in exchange for idolatry, showing how the ‘shameless acts’ are a consequence of human rebellion.  In addition, this illumines the meaning of the word ‘nature’, as Paul is speaking from his Hellenistic-Jewish background where homosexuality was regarded as sinful and against the created order.  Again, I urge Peter and others to read Hays on this topic (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, p. 383-89).

The second area of concern is Peter’s  testimony of same-sex couples who experience the fruit of the Spirit where as gay Christians who ‘suppress’ such desires experience depression and burden.  A number of problems come to mind in Peter’s discussion.  First, there is little discussion of essential themes of Christian discipleship such as suffering, spiritual warfare, self-denial, and carrying one’s cross.  Texts like Galatians 5 are important, but a holistic view of discipleship needs to include all relevant teachings on the nature of the Christian life.  I sensed a “theology of glory” supplanting a “theology of the cross” in Peter’s spiritual counsel to gay Christians.

Second, Peter’s argument is that same-sex relationships, if they are to be labeled sin, should demonstrate “tangible evidence” that participating in such a sin is harmful (p. 79), and that “are no negative effects, spiritual or otherwise, from engaging in one,” is ambiguous and problematic.  The problem with this test is that Peter doesn’t provide sufficient exegetical data that this is the test of determining if something is sinful.  In addition, there is no clarification as to whether this should be demonstrated in every single case of homosexual acts, or a pure majority, or if a significant minority counts as demonstrating tangible harmful effects.

Peter claims he can’t think of any negative effects (p. 80), but this seems to  contradict what he says about homosexuality not being part of God’s good creation and having disadvantages that heterosexual relationships don’t have (p. 71).  Peter argues that there is a categorical disadvantage to homosexual relationships as a post-fall effect.  This admission seems to damage his case that homosexual relationships have no tangible harmful effects. (Also, a Bible-believing Christian could persuasively argue the spiritually harmful effects of homosexual relationships based on Romans 1:18-32 and 1 Cor 6:9-11 based on traditional exegesis of these passages.)

Third, Peter’s positive case that same-sex relationships bear the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ is confusing and incoherent.  Peter makes a positive case for homosexual relationships in claiming that such relationships might and (some) in fact do bear all the ‘marks of love’ and the fruit of the Spirit seen in heterosexual relationships (p. 84).  I am confused as to what constitutes a ‘mark of love’ though it seeems Peter has 1 Corinthians 13 in mind.  However, Paul’s theology of love within marriage is also summarized in Eph 5:22-31 where the love in marriage is a shadow of Christ’s love for the church, and this is why traditionalists claim that male-female monogamy in marriage is the appropriate venue to shadow Christ and the church, since Eph 5 and Gen 2 emphasize the importance if different genders ‘fitting’ one another. (Though Peter downplays the importance of gender in relation to the Christ-church relationship.)

Peter demonstrates an incomplete biblical theology of sin when he states, “Yet, if we really believe that homosexuality is sinful and what the Bible says about the nature of sin is true, then same-sex relationships should yield the opposite of all these virtues.” (p. 87) Well, one could claim all homosexual relationships bear the marks of the flesh such as “impurity” and don’t exhibit “patience” as a fruit. (All the NT texts condemning homosexual acts reach back to the purity laws in Leviticus, and one may argue the LGBT Christians don’t exhibit eschatalogical patience.)  In addition, the Proverbs speak of how some sinners exhibit earthly fruitfulness but that such is deceptive.  I wonder if Peter would have a more rounded doctrine of sin if he would read Cornelis Plantinga Jr.’s Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin.  Also, Donald Grey Barnhouse’s famous illustration is fitting here, that if Satan was in control of a city there wouldn’t be crime, strip clubs, etc., but it would be a quiet, moralistic town where churches are filled.  In other words, there would seemingly be ‘spiritual fruit’ but it would only look good on the surface.

Also, Peter’s counsel to LGBT folk who fear a life of singleness and lack of romantic companionship is to see that God wants them to find romance in this life.  Yet, the biblical story of redemption seems to take a different trajectory.  It points us to the Bridegroom and our eschatalogical wedding dress and feast.  Why is this missing from Peter’s book?  Could I not argue from 1 Cor 7 that God might be blessing homosexuals who might never marry with the chance to be closer to Jesus and his mission than married couples?  That was Paul’s argument for himself.

Peter challenges the traditional view by asking, “Are ‘gay christian’s demonically misled for claiming the Spirit has given them peace?” (p. 111-113) Ultimately, Scripture is the norm, but we must deal with other testimonies of LGBT Christians who were convicted by the Holy Spirit to be celibate and repent of their sexual lifestyle.  Even Peter admits that the Spirit may do this with LGBT Christians (p. 109-111). (I agree with Peter’s critique of conversion therapy.  Conversion therapy has the goal to repress sexuality, but the Bible’s goal is to preserve it.)  So, is this Spirit double talk?  What do I do if I have seemingly ‘valid’ testimonies from LGBT Christians who believe the Bible doesn’t condemn homosexual acts and from LGBT Christians (who still maintain their orientation) who believe the Scriptures do condemn such acts?  Both claim the work of the Spirit in their lives.  Peter’s argument of experiential theology leaves me at a standstill.  Peter needs to be consistent when he claims, “It is not only uncharitable, but also unbiblical, to only accept the testimony of other Christians as long as it comports with our personal doctrine.” (p. 114) (And examining the stories of people like Rosaria Butterfield, Sam Allberry, and Debra Hirsch wouldn’t hurt.)

An additional I had in reading this book is that Peter’s argument could be used analogously to claim that viewing pornogaphy isn’t necessarily sinful.  Indeed, the traditional view of sexuality would have young people not view pornography or masturbate, but such a standard is burdensome and depresses young people.  One could hear testimonies from married couples that use pornography as a way to ‘spice up’ their marriage.  In other words, it seems that Peter’s hermeneutic opens up the pandora’s box for a number of very questionable practices, even with sexual ethics.

Finally, I found chapters 7 and 9 to be the weakest in the book.  I know African-Americans who are offended when people compare slavery and the civil rights movement to homosexual marriage cause today.  In addition, Peter is taking a rather narrow (and culturally elitist) slice of history as he relegates his “wrong side of history” examples  to the “current trajectory of acceptance of homosexual acts” examples to white western folk from the last 200-300 years.  Why is post-Enlightenment white western culture the standard?

A Third Way?

While I strongly disagree with many of Peter’s arguments, I found myself also becoming more disenfranchised with how churches with traditional views of sexuality have either failed the LGBT individuals or, even worse, helped propagate hatred of such individuals.  Just as George Hunter III notes that the Vikings were hostile to the Church due, in part, to the church’s view of Vikings as ‘barbarians’ and not civilized enough to receive the gospel, perhaps orthodox and evangelical churches are a chief cause for the cultural persecution the church faces in the West from sexual liberation movements because we didn’t see LGBT people as proper recipients of the gospel.

It seems that the gospel offers third way from either barring LGBT people from Jesus or in affirming a sexual ethic contrary to Scripture.  Unfortunately, there is no step-by-step instruction manual for how to disciple LGBT folk in cultivating a holy sexuality (as opposed to dichotomizing hetero vs homo sexuality).  Every LGBT community and culture is distinct and different enough to require a unique path of wisdom that is both faithful and contextual.

Still, I think there are some helpful truths to consider in seeking this third way of discipling the LGBT community.

1.  Theology of the Cross
As I mentioned earlier in my review, Peter’s argument lacks essential themes of discipleship such as suffering, spiritual warfare, carrying one’s cross, denying oneself, etc.  While Peter expects to see much fruit in the lives of those who follow Jesus, it seems that he clings more to the “already” rather than the “not yet” in terms of biblical eschatology.  Following Jesus is tough.  Repentance (lasting fruit) is tough.  Questioning much of our upbringing and sociological stature is tough.  However, this is the call of Jesus.  This is why I really appreciate Richard Hays grid for NT ethics (community, cross, new creation).

2.  Theology of Community
While I am not a discipleship expert by any means, in being exposed to various models and method of discipleship, I’m convinced that discipleship primarily happens through authentic community.  If we relegate ‘discipleship’ to our Sabbath context or even our one-on-one vocational context, we will miss out on the most pervasive practice the NT gives concerning the church, one anothering.  The one anothering in the church applies in Sabbath and Vocational contexts, but our Neighborhood (Oikos) context is where we see the fullness of these one anothering passages.  Here is a radical thought:  What if professional counseling (secular or religious) isn’t all it is propped up to be and that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is right in that ‘life together’ is the discipleship model we need?  What if marriage issues, sexual identity crises, accountability, and mission are worked out through the church ‘scattered-yet-gathered’ in neighborhoods and networks throughout the week?  What if eating meals, prayer walks, discerning God’s will through Scripture, and fellowship  are the best means of accountability as opposed to mere Bible studies or ‘accountability groups’?  In other words, maybe there is little fruit because there is little discipleship.

Okay, that was a rant.  But I think both conversative and liberal churches get this wrong too often.

3.  Theology of Listening
When reading To Melt a Golden Calf I kept thinking, “If only Peter would read (fill in a Christian theologian’s name).”  I wish Stanley Hauerwas, N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, Michael Horton, Richard Hays, and Debra Hirsch would have their stories flow into Peter’s story.  N.T. Wright’s emphasis on rhythmic disciplines of discipleship (which really shows the struggling, progressive nature of discipleship), Scot McKnight’s showing how Jesus ate with ‘human beings’ made in the image of God and not ‘human doings’, Debra Hirsch’s amazing testimony (where she was a lesbian living in a lesbian community, found Jesus, and changed her sexual behavior) of patience in discipleship, and Richard Hays’ emphasis on the new creation and the eschatalogical  thrust of NT discipleship are all great emphases in discipleship coming from those who are thinking through the issue of homosexuality.  None of these folks match the caricature of fundamentalists, right-winged  evangelicals, or conservatives.  Yet, they have seen fruit in their ministries of people seeing LGBT folk be transformed by the gospel (even if that doesn’t mean their ‘orientation’ has changed).

I pose the following to my friend, Peter.  The issue is not the traditional view of biblical sexuality but rather our practical outworking of Jesus’ commission to make disciples.  Instead of relying on therapy and arguments, discipleship carves out a third way of spiritual apprenticeship.  Instead of relying on moralism or graceism (law vs gospel), we imitate Jesus’ method of discipleship in giving both invitation and challenge (indicative and imperative) to those who follow Jesus.

I look forward to future discussions with my good friend over this issue and to be challenged by him.

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