Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2003


John Brewer (2003) 'Sexuality in the Church: toward a sociology of the Bible'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 8, no. 4, <>

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Received: 22/7/2003      Accepted: 21/10/2003      Published: 28/11/2003


Sexuality is an obsession of the Christian Church. It is one of the social behaviours that it has tried most to control amongst its flock and yet the Christian Church has failed to prevent the encroachment of modern attitudes towards sex and sexuality into the Church as an institution. The furore over the proposed appointment of an openly gay bishop in the Church of England is but the latest expression of this tension. However, this paper argues that this debate needs to be placed in a much broader context, namely, the hermeneutical problem of the authority of the Bible, which is itself only one part of a wider sociology of the Bible. The current debate on sexuality in the Church highlights the need for sociology to begin to apply its way of thinking to the Bible.

Religion; Sex; Sexuality; The Bible; The Church


Humans are sexual beings. This creates two problems for the Church. Whilst its regulation is one of the Church's chief obsessions, sexuality in modern society is increasingly impervious to control by the Church and yet the Church as an institution is itself composed of human beings who are themselves not impervious to society's increasingly relaxed attitudes towards sexuality. This puts the Church under twin pressures. One response has been to conserve the traditional position on sexuality and to try to conceal or deny that its priesthood and pastors are sexual beings, the other to try to accommodate itself to modern attitudes and behaviours and to permit its priesthood some of the expressions of sexuality accorded the flock. The Church of England's botched appointment of an openly gay bishop became so prominent a public issue because it provoked a fierce clash between trenchant advocates of both positions. This is not new. Women priests, remarriage of divorcees, the baptism of children born to un-churched or co-habiting parents, the issue of abortion and the like have all been rendered as problems for the Church because of the pressures sexuality imposes on it.

One of the interesting features of the public debate on openly gay clergy is the way in which the respective sides make appeals to Scripture to legitimise their standpoint. Two positions are taken on the authority of the Bible. The first is to accord it primacy and to interpret its teaching on homosexuality as general principles applicable in all contexts and times. The second is to see the Bible as contingent, with its teaching on homosexuality reflecting particular times and spaces. The issue of sexuality in the Church therefore needs to be located in wider debates about the authority of the Bible and thus in the age-old problem of hermeneutics. The question of what biblical texts mean is one that bears on much more than the issue of homosexuality. However, the gay-bishop debate has drawn our attention again to the issue of how we interpret the Bible. But this is only one feature of what can be called the sociology of the Bible. In applying sociology's way of thinking to Scripture, we should focus on at least three things: a) hermeneutical issues in the interpretation of biblical texts; b) the sociological processes involved in the production and publication of the Bible as a text; c) and the sociological dynamics involved in the use of the Bible. This 'rapid response' paper can only suggest a short introduction to this field. It will briefly review the theological positions taken on homosexuality and locate the issue within our current understanding of the sociology of the Bible, as a prelude to arguing that the discipline needs to broaden its analyses of Scripture.

* Homosexuality and the Church

The Christian Church is routinely penetrated by the culture in which it operates and has been wrought apart before by its ambivalent response to changing cultural attitudes. The first modern theological discussion of homosexuality was in 1955 (Bailey, 1955; for a review of recent literature see Murchison, 1998) and it has proved divisive. This might appear odd, since there is no single word in Hebrew or Greek which can be easily translated into 'homosexual', and it only appeared in the Bible in English for the first time in the 1946 Revised Standard Version. There are only seven textual references to homosexuality (using various nomenclature), with none in the four gospels. No biblical text presents an extensive discussion of same-gender behaviour, and none discusses homosexuality in the ministry. Yet cultural attitudes towards gays have affected our interpretation of biblical texts. Some traditions have warmly welcomed gays; one church in the US has ministered to gay people since 1968 and the first openly gay pastor was ordained there in 1972. Conversely, the Coptic Orthodox Church refers to homosexuals as debased in mind, having rights only to feel shame and to seek repentance, punished appropriately by AIDS, such that a homosexual priesthood is against everything holy (Serapion, 1998). There is surprising unity amongst otherwise divided traditions in their opposition to homosexuality and to non-celibate gay clergy, as Evangelical Protestants (see Johnston, 1979), the Roman Catholic Church (see Hanigan, 1998) and the Orthodox tradition (see Serapion, 1998) line up trenchantly against. Those who evince more charity (notably Anglicans) only highlight the divisiveness of the issue as their tolerance provokes threats of schism from conservative colleagues (particularly from conservative Anglican communities outside the West).

Yet as Johnston (1979) shows, responses to the issue of homosexuals in the church and priesthood can be placed on a broad continuum that cuts across denominations. At the one extreme are those whom he labels 'rejecting-punitive', including many conservative evangelicals in the Reformed tradition and the Orthodox Church, which moves on to the 'rejecting-non-punitive' approach officially adopted by the Roman Catholic Church and which is evident also in evangelicals of more liberal persuasion, where the emphasis is upon responsibilities for pastoral care to gays rather than preaching wrath and repentance. The other pole veers from 'qualified' to 'full acceptors', the latter reflected in liberal Protestant churches in the US and, clearly, some sections of Lambeth Palace and the diocese of Oxford, in which the Reading bishopric falls. Denominational differences are important in one sense however, in that different systems of church governance have made it easier for some presbyteries and congregations with local patronage to appoint openly gay clergy, whereas the centralisation of power (in persons or church tradition) limits flexibility in the management of internal divisions by enforcing the official orthodoxy. Lienemann (1998) has also argued that churches in liberal states find it easier to adopt more relaxed positions on sexual ethics, as do non-state churches in less liberal states. There are many exceptions to these axioms however, because the defining factor is the position taken on biblical authority. The issue of homosexuality is reducible to the hermeneutical problem of what the texts mean, and unlike slavery, apartheid or patriarchy in the past, Scripture is unequivocal in its condemnation; the question then is what store modern Christians should put on the texts and thus on the authority of the Bible itself. The issue of biblical hermeneutics is recognised to be at the centre of what is called the sociology of the Bible. A brief detour is needed to explore this sub-field.

* Sociology and the Bible

The broad relationship between sociology and theology has been addressed by leading theologians (Gill, 1987) and sociologists (Martin, 1997) but the application of sociological insights and method to the Bible is limited even within the sociology of religion and is mostly undertaken by biblical scholars, for whom a sociological imagination has proved a revelation since the early 1980s (for a review of this work see Coleman, 1999). The sociological work of biblical scholars has focused primarily on locating the first Christian communities in Greco-Roman Mediterranean culture as an explanation of its foothold and growth (Esler, 1994; Grant, 1977; Kee, 1980; Malherbe, 1983; Meeks, 1983; Schutz, 1982; Stambaugh and Blach, 1986; Theissen, 1978), although some sociologists have studied this topic as well, usually criticising biblical scholars for their limited understanding of the discipline (Blasi, 1988, , 1996; Bryant, 1997; Stark, 1996). Analysing the social context of early Christianity is a respectable topic within the sociology of religion - Stark, for example, uses it to advance his rational choice theory of religion and Social Compass devoted an entire issue to it in 1992 - but textual analysis of the Bible is normally left to biblical scholars. This is formative to the sociology of the Bible. As Coleman (1999) advocates, the field is demarcated by analysing the hermeneutics of the text as it interacts with the social world in which it is embedded and the literary style used to assemble it.

In this vein there have been sociological studies of the Old Testament as a whole (Gottwald, 1979; Mayes, 1989; see Wilson, 1980for a more conventional sociological treatment of ancient Israel), and the New (Best, 1983; Edwards, 1983; Fenn, 1992; Holmberg, 1990; Kee, 1989; Scroggs, 1986; Tidball, 1983; Ouedraogo, 1999explores Weber's analysis of the New Testament), as well as of specific gospels (Elser, 1987; Malina and Rohrbaugh, 1992, 1997; Neyrey, 1991; Overman, 1990) and other key texts (Elliot, 1981; Theissen, 1982; for an anthropological analysis of some Old Testament books see Douglas, 1966, 1999). An extension of this interest in the hermeneutics of Scripture and its social world has been to draw attention to particular themes in the Bible and their cultural practice in biblical times, such as gender and the family (Oziek and Balch, 1997), honour and shame (Peristany and Pitt-Rivers, 1992), healing (Pilch, 1985), property (Haan, 1988), justice (Crosby, 1988; Grassi, 2003), and peace and violence (Hendrickx, 1986).

The present state of the sub-field therefore is that while sociological analyses of early Christian social life abound, as much in biblical studies as in the sociology of religion, the sociology of the Bible itself is a limited enterprise amongst sociologists (for some exceptions see Blasi, 1991, 1996; Brewer, 1998: Ch. 5; Coleman, 1999). The field is further bounded by its exclusive focus on biblical hermeneutics, such that the sociology of the Bible as presently constituted comprises the 'redescription of texts' (as Ricoeur, 1995put it) by interpreting them in their sociological and literary context. It is within this substantive and analytical approach that we should properly locate the debate about sexuality and gay clergy in the Church.

The sociology of biblical hermeneutics and the issue of homosexuality

Sociologists have long recognized the importance of culturally conditioned interpretations. We understand the social world as an interpreted world; so too the Bible. Even strict Biblical literalists are forced to make choices in how to interpret the Bible, since many of its injunctions about food, dress, blood sacrifice and so on are not only unacceptable in some cultures but sometimes down right illegal. The literary style of the Bible was often metaphorical so that, for example, we plainly do not go through the eye of needle on the way to heaven. Encultured choices are made across nations and denominations, even within congregations and families, in how to read the Bible. This is not just a question of what the text means but whether or not its context makes it applicable today, for hermeneutics really addresses the authority of the Bible.

One way to interpret the Bible is that it represents history remembered; Scripture is an accurate account of what happened because it was remembered in oral tradition or written down at the time. There is a sociological basis to this kind of interpretation because we know that folk cultures have oral traditions that are disseminated in ways that tend to conserve the integrity of the history and self regulate conformity to it. Moreover, other parts of Scripture are clearly history remembered because the written texts survive from the time. This accords the Bible supreme authority since it is taken as literal, containing prescriptions direct from God that are context and time free. Biblical teachings on homosexuality are thus unproblematic to interpret: the Bible is history remembered, giving us direct access to God's unchanging word.

Another way of interpreting the Bible is as history metaphorized, with the historical memory imaginatively elaborated upon, so that it combines part history remembered, part metaphor. In this view, early Christians who wrote Biblical canon elaborated on the historical Jesus after knowledge of the resurrection and interpreted his public activities and sayings in the light of the post-Easter Jesus. Once elaboration is entertained as a principle, the Bible is seen as being culturally glossed, so that its meaning is conditioned by the cultural lenses and conventional wisdom that affected its writers. In this view, the Bible's authority is contingent on whether specific texts carry over into different times and places. The Bible's teachings on homosexuality are thus problematic for the texts need to be examined closely for their universal application.

These competing positions on the hermeneutical problem of homosexuality can best be illustrated by the vigorous debate between two theologians, Walter Wink (1979, 2002), who in various writings doubts the universality of biblical texts on homosexuality and Robert Gagnon (2001, 2002) who does not. However, their dispute is useful in another way, for Gagnon is an orthodox biblical scholar, Wink a sociologically inspired one and the arguments Wink mounts illustrate the strengths of a sociology of the Bible that focuses on locating texts in their broader context. Gagnon's standpoint is clear: there is tension in the canon itself on a whole range of social issues on which the Church has changed its position but none regarding homosexuality. Without mentioning same-sex relationships, Jesus went beyond Mosaic Law in restricting sexual activity to one's marital opposite-sex partner.

Wink's response is to analyze the texts and rule out four of the seven references as either ambiguous or with irrelevant localized and socially contingent referents (such as to male rape, pagan fertility rites involving males or male prostitution), giving three that unambiguously condemn homosexuality. He locates the two Old Testament references in context. Hebrew pre-scientific understanding was that male sperm contained the whole of nascent life, such that its spilling for any purpose than procreation was tantamount to murder, which was a socially functional view in a tribe of peoples struggling to populate a country where they were outnumbered and their occupancy under threat. He limits the thrust of Paul's reference in the New Testament Book of Romans by arguing that it was to sexual lust amongst males not genuine same-sex love. Two sociological arguments are then marshaled. First, he refers to the cultural shifts that no longer make proscriptions binding. Modern cultural lenses have dimmed the impact of several prohibitions in Scripture which Christians no longer see as normative - nudity, menstrual intercourse, sex before marriage between consenting adults, adultery - and discourage us from behaviours considered normative in the Bible, such as concubinage, polygamy and levirate marriage (marrying a brother's widow to sire children on behalf of the deceased). Holding on to the universality of prohibitions on homosexuality is thus entirely arbitrary and encultured. Secondly, Wink draws on the latest social scientific evidence on the nature of homosexuality to argue that Paul could not know what we now do about sexual orientation. Advances in knowledge make erroneous Paul's statements that homosexuality is contrary to nature and can be easily repented, as if it was not fixed early in a person's psychosexual identity and was a kind of pathology (on the impact of social science literature at the time on evangelical approaches to homosexuality see Johnston, 1979). Hefling (1996) uses the example of usury to similar effect, showing that the Church changed its judgment that charging interest on money lent was a sin when our understanding of money changed.

One of the strengths of the hermeneutical focus in the sociology of the Bible is that sociological insights encourage the assessment that biblical texts on homosexuality should be re-interpreted with the times. Nonetheless, there are weaknesses in restricting the sociology of the Bible to hermeneutical issues, irrespective of the value in enlightening us on biblical sexual ethics. The gay bishop debate is again instructive. To a sociologist of the Bible, whether from a biblical studies or mainstream sociology background, the issue of sexuality in the Church tends to get reduced to the hermeneutical problem of what the texts mean then and now. This makes issues around the human rights of gay people and their experiences of discrimination and injustice either irrelevant or secondary. Limiting the sub-field to hermeneutical questions of what biblical texts mean is too narrow a hub and completely ignores the sociological use to which particular texts or the Bible itself have been put. It also overlooks the sociological processes involved in the production of the Bible as a text. These additional dimensions can be briefly charted.

* Widening the Sociology of the Bible

Nationalism, social conflict and class division are among the factors that affected the assembly of the Bible as a text (for an elaboration of these debates see McGrath, 2001). Up to the mediaeval period, Bibles were handwritten documents kept in monasteries, but the Middle Ages witnessed massive social change in which wealth and power shifted to the new merchant class away from the old patrician families. With literacy came the demand for a printed Bible. But it also needed to be a text that reflected these new social realities. Because a vernacular text reflected new social forces that were challenging the established order, the dominant political and religious elites initially opposed English translations - to own one of John Wycliffe's earliest English Bibles in the fourteenth century was presumptive evidence of heresy, and in the fifteenth-century Tyndale's translation of the New Testament led to his execution. What is interesting therefore is to understand the sociological processes by which the Church and the state came eventually to consider an English text as a mark of nationhood.

The growth of English nationalism is premier amongst these processes. The language of the English elite in the fourteenth century was French and Latin - English the language of plowmen. The growth of English nationalism in the Tudor period made writing - or translating - the Bible into English irresistible. The link between a self-confident English national identity and Protestantism is well documented (Colley, 1992), and the Protestant stress upon vernacular texts dates from the beginning of the Reformation; one of its chief principles was that church reform and renewal would come from putting the Bible in the hands of ordinary people. But Protestantism had another impact on the Bible as a text, for the Reformation required new translations. The Latin translation used at the time, known as the Vulgate, was replete with Catholic language and iconography, so after the English Reformation the state produced the first official English Bible, known as the Great Bible. The format of the Great Bible however, was that its size and expense made it something to be read in church from the pulpit rather than possessed in the home; class relations in Tudor England meant that peasants could not yet be trusted with vernacular Bibles.

The Bible for the Protestant masses was printed in Geneva not England. The Geneva Bible was a Puritan text with marginal notes intended to assist people to read the Bible in a particular way. The established Anglican Church, which Puritans saw as quasi Catholic, not surprisingly opposed the Geneva text. Yet the rise in popularity of non-conformist Protestantism amongst ordinary people effectively made the Geneva Bible their sacred text: Shakespeare's Biblical quotations are from the Geneva text. The King James Version was commissioned precisely in order to challenge the Geneva Bible. James's anti-Puritanism led to a text that contained no seditious marginal notes (he therefore also deleted the marginal notes that denied the biblical justification of the divine right of kings). In short, the Bible was used by the Church and the state as a text in a sociological project to support the existing social order.

Yet the Authorized Version reveals itself as a socially produced text in perhaps more profound ways. The translation process that produced the text shows the King James Version to be a cultural artifact. The translators operated by socially constructed rules - they were required to avoid local dialect (and of course in the process helped to shape standard norms of spoken and written English), they were required to be elegant in prose style by avoiding using the same English words for the Greek or Hebrew equivalent, such that, for example, they translated in quite different manner identical Greek passages across the Gospels, and they were creative in the way they translated the poetry of the Old Testament into prose. The accuracy of the Authorized Version must also be doubted in another way, since the best manuscripts in the sixteenth century from which it was translated were tenth century and have since been supplanted by fourth century manuscripts, known to be more authentic. While no single teaching of the Christian Church is affected by the variations in these manuscripts, the textual variations undermine literalist interpretations of the Bible.

Attention to the social processes involved in the production of the Bible as a text offers insight also into how the Bible (or specific translations of it) has been used sociologically. The deployment of the King James Version as part of a Protestant nation-building project in England offers a direct challenge to the common sense view of many traditional Protestants today for whom the Authorized Version is the Bible, the unadulterated sacred text that supports the biblical inerrancy that characterizes fundamentalist interpretations of it.

There are many more social and political projects in which the Bible or certain texts have been used sociologically: scriptural support for anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, anti-Catholicism in Northern Ireland, racial separation in apartheid South Africa or slavery in the US, biblical under girding of gender differences in patriarchal societies, or even scriptural notions of forgiveness in post-violence adjustments and peace processes. This hints strongly at an important dimension of the sociology of the Bible that is overlooked in the hermeneutical focus on the meaning of texts. What is at issue here is not what texts mean, then and now, but the way that meaning has been employed for sociological purposes (such as the marginalization of particular sexual orientations).

* Conclusion

The current debate about sexuality in the Church highlights several sociological features about the Bible and prompts us to apply the discipline's way of thinking to Scripture. Although biblical literalists see the Bible as history remembered and thus God's true and final word for all time and place (which results in their view that homosexuality is universally proscribed), the sociology of the Bible sees Scripture as social in origin, the product of two communities, the Jews of ancient Israel and Christians in the first century. The Bible does not tell us how God sees things but how these two communities saw things. As a social product its text displays all those sociological dynamics within communities by which they create and socially disseminate folk culture and traditions (which results in the view that biblical passages on homosexuality are contingent and locally specific). However, it has been argued here that the sociology of the Bible needs to broaden from hermeneutical issues narrowly understood. The production and publication of the Bible as a text reflects the many social processes that lead to the domination of one textual form over another, and the way it is used shows the impact of encultured ways of understanding the Bible and deploying it sociologically.


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