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Homosexuality and Christianity: The Kirk/Gagnon Debate – Part 112 min read

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kirkgagnondebateThis debate is probably one of the more advanced theological debates on the subject, miles from the simplistic first-tier arguments. It is also interesting to me because the pro-gay theologian, Dr. Daniel Kirk, was my NT prof at Fuller Theological Seminary. Taking the traditional position is Dr. Robert Gagnon, Associate Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Here’s my summary of their theological points, and some reflection on each.

Dr. Kirk’s Pro-Gay Theological Points

1. Accepting As God Does

Here, Dr. Kirk makes his main statement that God is essentially expanding who belongs, as He did in Acts 10 by accepting the gentiles, not just Jews. And if God is doing this, we should not resist it.

Then Peter asked, “Can anyone object to their being baptized, now that they have received the Holy Spirit just as we did?” So he gave orders for them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. (Acts 10:46-48)

In addition, Dr. Kirk implies that just as other Jewish ceremonial disctinctives are not necessary for gentiles, perhaps the sexual distinctives should be viewed the same way (more on that later).

One last point about accepting gays is that when we say things like “my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters” we are confessing they have the spirit of God and are regenerated. Do we intend to say that, or not?

My Comment: Dr. Kirk is right that we equivocate on using the terms of universal v. Christian brotherhood. However, his main thesis, that God is doing this and we better adjust our theology, is really interesting.

2. Abrahamic Covenant – Righteous through Faith Before Circumcision

Circumcision did not make Abraham, nor any other Jew righteous. But they still did it as a sign of the covenant. Even foreigners who joined were circumcised. But in the NT, Paul talks of how there is a “new” people of God – those, not of circumcision, but faith.

Dr. Kirk then mentions a passage and asks “were those who were ‘washed’ still gay, just as gentiles were still gentiles?” (my paraphrase)

Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people – none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God. Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9b-11)

My Comment: It is pretty clear from this passage that those who were ‘washed’ are no longer gay, or thieves, or adulterers. So the past tense of ‘such were some of you’ does not apply to their former guilt and current righteousness, but of the real change that accompanied salvation – no longer sinning.1

Of course, in the context of this verse, Paul is explaining that we are saved by grace and not works, but he then goes on to discuss why this can not be used as an excuse to continue sinning as we did before.

3. Unclean Creatures (Peter in Acts 10) Made Clean

Peter's Vision by Domenico Fetti
Peter’s Vision by Domenico Fetti

Dr. Kirk makes a bold statement here – that just as the gentiles were declared clean after being unclean, and this calls for the end of the ceremonial law, Kirk argues that this should be extended to include the moral sexual laws – that is, we should not call any person unclean.

“These animals are a representation of these unclean gentiles….When God purified the gentiles, it was no longer OK for God’s people to say ‘you are still an impure gentile people, and you have to be marked out by the purity laws.'” 20:00

In fact, he says then directly applies this to sexuality:

“Is it simply coincidence that Leviticus 18, the chapter in which we get the whole litany of prohibitions about sexuality, begins with God saying “Don’t do like the Egyptians do, and don’t do like the people of Canaan….

The laws about sexuality in Leviticus 18 had, among their purposes, to distinguish the Jewish people from their gentile neighbors.

What’s the standing of these laws…when God has said “No, I’m not interested in distinguishing my people form the gentiles. I’m interested in purifying the gentiles as they are and letting them be part of the people of God.”

Why is it that we don’t make a big deal about men and women having sex during a woman’s period? Another law from Leviticus 18. Might these laws provide some of that same cordoning off of Israel from the gentiles, and might that be how [the prescription of hetero sex] is supposed to function as well?”

My Comment: Claiming that the sexual laws prescribed in Leviticus 18 were merely to distinguish Israel, and were not moral in nature, is a strong claim. Later, Dr. Kirk will argue that monogamy is the only persistent moral sexual law (I assume he rules out monogamous bestiality), and that all others were merely to distinguish Israel from other nations, something no longer necessary. His additional point is that the only reason God may have proscribed homosexuality was to make them distinctive from their neighbors.

4. This works ONLY if sexual identity is inborn

Dr. Kirk admits that his effort to equate gentiles and homosexuals only works if sexuality is inborn (like being a gentile). And that these social identity markers are amoral, and were supposed to be used as markers of the people of God only, not as moral imperatives.

He then asks whether or not the anti-gay stance is merely a tyranny of the majority.  That is, that these rules are based on heterosexual normativity. But gays aren’t just acting on a behavior, he argues, sexuality impacts all of the ways they and we react to other people. It is an intrinsic quality that we are rejecting out of bias, not moral law.

“Is our continuing to marginalize gay and lesbian people who are a part of us saying “You are unclean” to those God has purified?”

My Comment: I guess the question to ask is, does Dr. Kirk believe that homosexuality is sufficiently based in biology to be treated as a trait, not a learned behavior or identity? Here, I think he has an uphill battle.

His point about marginalizing people is well taken, though perhaps we can still stand against the sin without marginalizing the sinner? In practice, this has been hard to do because gays experience or understand their orientation as germane to their identity, not just a behavior to be changed.

Additionally, the relative inability of reparation therapy to change gays speaks to some deep persistence of homosexual orientation in the soul, so we need to consider if our approach is at least too superficial, if not in error.

5. Sabbath as Holy yet Nonbinding in the NT

disciplesgrain2Dr. Kirk here leverages a tough theological New Testament problem. If the 10 Commandments are moral imperatives, how come Jesus suspended or changed the meaning of the Sabbath? Perhaps what we think of as unchanging moral laws are not all of that character, but can be reinterpreted by what God is doing.

“Sabbath is a law that is given in the 10 Commandments….and [breaking it] was a capital crime. Sabbath keeping is also part of Isaiah’s vision of the people of God…eunichs will be embraced…foreigners, gentiles who keep sabbath.”

But in the NT, when Paul says to the Galatians that if they continue to keep Sabbath, Paul worries that they are no longer trusting the gospel.

“The definition of sin has changed because God has embraced gentiles into the people of God. Keeping Sabbath became so much a Jewish identity marker that for gentiles to come in as gentiles, they could not be held accountable even for keeping one of the 10 commandments.” 29:00

Dr. Kirk discusses how in Galatians, Paul talks of gentiles as if they were sinners by birth – that is, in being gentiles. But that God no longer considers people sinners by inborn traits.

“You and I are Jews by birth, not ‘sinners’ like the Gentiles.” (Galatians 2:15)

“The definition of sin has been turned on its head because God has brought, in a surprising way, this additional people to be part of the community.” 31:00

My Comment: This is an interesting argument – that gentiles were considered sinners by birth (as a trait), and this serves as precident that even if homosexuality was considered a sin, that too can be redefined and declassified as a sin as God adds these new people to His body.

6. Christ is Not a Servant of Sin – Maintaining Sexual Ethics

Dr. Kirk then tries to address the objection that arises in response to his claims – “then are all sexual sins no longer sins? By what principle or scripture can we now declare any sexual ethics?”

“What does righteous living look like? Keeping in step with the spirit, walking by the spirit…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness….and we can still say there is a sexual ethic for the people of God….we can invite them with us to the cross-shaped loving of partners which is a lifetime of committed relationship….I would say that that ethic of keeping sex within a lifelong covenant partnership is an ethic that still distinguishes us from the world around us.”

My Comment: Again, Dr. Kirk is relying more on phenomenon than scripture here, but I don’t see any precedent for the Bible emphasizing a monogamy that includes homosexuality. The New Testament is full of references against polygamy, and for monogamy. But nowhere is homosexuality included in any form, explicit or implicit.

7. The Church Is Merely Agreeing With What God Has Already Done

Dr. Kirk repeats his main thesis here, intoning the spirit of what I would call the radical equality movement (REM). Based on Galatians 3:28, he argues that distinctions made on gender, race, or any other intrinsic quality are no longer acceptable.

There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

He argues that God set the stage for this in the first century, but is just NOW making it come to pass now. Radical equality is what God is doing in our generation. God did not do this in the first century, and it was not in their day to recognize this.

“My argument for inclusion is not…exegetical…it’s the argument from the work of the spirit of God. That we, no less than the first century church, have a biblical obligation, not just to say what the first century writers said, but to do what they did. To exercise this great leap of faith, that when God has so acted, we must respond. That loving our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters means, in every way, creating environments where they hearer “you are just as beloved, sister, brother, child of God, as I am.” And so that we don’t make the fatal mistake of separating, in our body, what God has joined together.”

My Comment: The idea that, just as the OT prophets unknowingly predicted the messiah, the NT writers also wrote of future events they could not foresee, is a tempting one. We all want to be part of “what God is doing in our generation.”  (cf. Acts 13:36 and 1 Chronicles 12:32) The question is, is Dr. Kirk correct in his prophetic stance?


In Part 2, we’ll look at Dr. Gagnon’s comments and summarize.


  1. Hope for Homosexuals ([]