Which produces better fruit for same-sex-attracted men and women: the traditional or the progressive interpretation of the Bible’s sexual ethic?
The exegetical debate between these two stances has been well-documented. Ultimately, the truth of either position hinges on the interpretation of biblical passages concerning sexuality. Although it’s important to make strong, exegetical arguments that the historic Christian interpretation of these passages is biblically faithful — and that the progressive interpretation is not — that is not my intention here.
Rather, my goal is to defend this traditional sexual ethic against an argument progressives level against it downstream from exegesis. This argument is not about what the Bible says, but about the fruit these two interpretations produce in the realities of a same-sex-attracted person’s life.
The Progressive Argument
The argument, as fairly as I can put it, goes like this: The progressive interpretation of the Bible’s sexual ethic bears good fruit in people’s lives. Progressives claim that affirming same-sex marriage and monogamous same-sex relationships produces the good fruit of love, relational care, intimacy, and a hundred other benefits. The historic interpretation, they say, does not produce any of these things; rather, it often bears the bad fruit of pain, discouragement, and even despair.
Affirming theology gives. Non-affirming theology only withholds. That is the argument.
“Every day, thousands of SSA brothers and sisters faithfully live out the beauty of the traditional sexual ethic.”
It’s true that historic biblical interpretation teaches that marriage is reserved for one man and one woman (Matthew 19:4–5), and that “men who have sex with men” is a sin listed alongside drunkenness, greed, and slander as worthy of exclusion from God’s kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9–10). So, the traditional sexual ethic does restrict in a way the progressive ethic does not.
But does this necessarily lead to bad fruit? And do progressive interpretations have a corner on good fruit? Far from it. Consider three counterarguments to the progressive claim that the traditional ethic produces bad fruit.
1. The best fruit comes from self-denial.
First, we need to distinguish between bad fruit and self-denial. While it is true that the traditional sexual ethic requires denying desires that feel natural for many of us who experience same-sex attraction (SSA), self-denial comes with any gospel worth its salt. Jesus himself said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). If there is no daily cross-carrying, no moment-by-moment crucifixion of the remaining vestiges of the flesh in all of our hearts (Romans 8:13), then it is not Christ we are following.
In order to consider this self-denial bad fruit, we must believe that sexual and romantic fulfillment are required for human flourishing. Are we really willing to go there? As Sam Allberry said, “The most fully human and complete person who ever lived was Jesus Christ. He never married, he was never in a romantic relationship, and never had sex. If we say these things are intrinsic to human fulfillment, we are calling our Savior subhuman.”
That doesn’t make self-denial easy. Many like me are laying down desires for sexual and romantic fulfillment on a daily basis. But make no mistake, giving up a lesser pleasure for the greater pleasure of Christ is no loss at all in the end, for “in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). We deny now in order to gain the reward later, and that reward is most definitely good fruit. This is the model of Christ, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2).
Jesus promises good fruit at the other end of all godly self-denial. And that includes the self-denial of the traditional sexual ethic.
2. A tradition’s abuses don’t equal the tradition.
Second, and related, we must identify the specific “bad fruit” that traditionalist theology is accused of producing. Much of what progressives label “bad fruit” reflects abuses of the traditional sexual ethic rather than the ethic itself.
“Christianity tells us our ultimate worth is found in the image of God, not in our sexual expression.”
To be clear, the abuses do exist. During a question-and-answer session at the 2014 Together for the Gospel conference, seminary president Al Mohler confessed what he called “the sins of evangelicalism” in responding to the gay community with fear, bravado, and stereotypes. These attitudes have produced bad fruit, and it is right to acknowledge past failures and repent of ways we have joined in these harmful expressions.
However, the abuse of a thing does not equal the thing itself. When applied in love, the historic Christian interpretation does not tell homosexual people that they are worthless. Rather, it tells them that their ultimate worth is found in the image of God that they bear (Genesis 1:27), instead of in their sexual expression. It does not encourage SSA Christians to hate themselves or deny who they are, but rather to find their identity in the loving Savior who gave his very life for them (Ephesians 5:2). It does not treat SSA believers as second-class citizens, but rather as beloved brothers and sisters whose gifts are necessary for the church to function properly (Romans 12:4–8).
Insofar as the traditional sexual ethic is wielded as a weapon, it produces harmful fruit. But the harm is in the wielding, not in the ethic itself.
3. Intimacy doesn’t depend on marriage or sex.
Third, although the conservative position does withhold same-sex sexual activity and marriage, it does not withhold sacrificial love, life-giving intimacy, and deep relational community. The only way someone could argue that the traditional ethic withholds these good gifts is if they believe that a sexual relationship is the only place to experience them. But this is patently false. Deep friendship, loving community, and kinship in Christ’s blood are all beautiful occasions for sacrificial love and intimacy that are not contingent on sexual expression.
“Giving up a lesser pleasure for the greater pleasure of Christ is no loss at all.”
Most progressives would not disagree with that last statement, but some might push back that these good gifts are not the direct fruit of the traditional sexual ethic. But that’s the point. Love, intimacy, and community do not depend on marriage or sex, and therefore they are not the direct fruit of any sexual ethic — progressive or traditional. What, then, is the good fruit reserved for the affirming position? Sexual fulfillment? See point one.
Yesterday, Today, Forever
Every day, thousands of SSA brothers and sisters faithfully live out the beauty of the traditional sexual ethic. To say that good fruit does not flow from the historic Christian interpretation is to ignore their stories and the grace of God at work in their lives. The path does involve self-denial. It isn’t always easy. But the fruit is clear: real love on earth that leads to the eternal love of Christ.
The fruit doesn’t get any better than that.