Sean McDowell | November 8, 2018

Responding to Karen Keen on Scripture and Same-Sex Relationships

Responding to Karen Keen on Scripture and Same-Sex Relationships

My thanks to Karen Keen for responding so thoughtfully to my review of her recent book. I appreciate both her content and tone.

Essentially, she claims that I fail to address her core argument: “McDowell’s response largely avoids the key arguments in my book.” That may be the case, but I chose this approach for two reasons. First, scholars have previously addressed many of her claims.[1]

Second, Keen rightly notes that “The crux of the current debate is gender and anatomical complementarity.” Are gender differences necessary for properly defining marriage, or is it “secondary,” as Keen claims? If gender differences are essential for the marital union, then the rest of her arguments are interesting, but irrelevant (celibacy requirement, deliberative process, etc.). If gender is secondary (i.e., not foundational or definitional in marriage), as she claims, then there may be Scriptural warrant for allowing same-sex unions in some cases.

Let me begin by addressing some of the issues she raises in her response to my review, and then I will consider one of her “key” arguments.

Does Biology Matter?

In her 6th point, Keen responds to my claim that her position warrants gender differences irrelevant for defining marriage. She says, “No, I didn’t say biology is irrelevant. I said procreation is secondary to the foundation of biblical marriage, which is covenant.” Yet, since she believes that Scripture allows for the possibility that same-sex relationships can qualify as marriage, then gender is functionally unnecessary (and hence, irrelevant) to the nature of marriage. Thus, on her view, gender differences are neither necessary or sufficient for marriage, and therefore definitionally irrelevant. On her view, gender differences may be relevant to some opposite-sex marriages, but are not necessary for all marriages, and thus are not relevant to capture the essence of marriage.

Thus, my original critique stands. She appeals to biological design by saying that lifelong celibacy “is an atypical state that goes against our biology.” In this case, it is wrong to violate our sexual nature through forced celibacy. But then she discounts biology (sexual differentiation) when it comes to the nature of marriage. Again, I ask, does biology matter or not? Should we be expected to follow the dictates of our biological and sexual natures or not?

Jesus and Marriage

Keen pushes back on my claim that Jesus viewed marriage as a gendered institution because,

Male-female marriage was a given. Their question is about divorce…I also point out that Jesus’s emphasis is on ‘two’ staying united and together, as opposed to getting a divorce. In other words, Jesus is arguing for the importance of covenant, which as I stated earlier, is the foundation of biblical marriage. Sexual differentiation is secondary to covenant.”

We are back to the same question: Do gender differences matter for properly defining marriage or not? Is a covenant of two people sufficient for a relationship to qualify as marriage?

Keen is right that the Pharisees assumed male-female marriage and that Jesus was addressing divorce (By the way, the Pharisaical assumption that marriage is gendered comes from a clear understanding of Scriptural teaching and strengthens the requirement of gender complementarity rather than lessens it, as she implies). And she is right that, in this particular interaction, Jesus affirms covenant primarily.

But the problem is that Jesus was not broadly affirming covenant of any two people–he was specifically affirming the intended permanence of the marital union, which he defines as involving male and female. Keen is right that Jesus was arguing for the importance of covenant as foundational to marriage, but she is mistaken to remove the gender component that Jesus specifically embraced.

Here’s the bottom line: In Matthew 19:4, Jesus specifically mentions male and female as God’s intention for marriage, and he does not specifically say that marriage is merely a covenant union of two. Yet on Keen’s view, Jesus does not believe marriage is necessarily gendered but believes it is about two. Honestly, how could Jesus have made it any clearer that he believes marriage is meant to be a permanent, gendered institution designed by God at creation?

Marriage and the “One-Flesh” Union

In her second point, Keen critiques my claim that marriage is about the “one-flesh” union oriented towards procreation. She writes, “My argument is that the foundation of biblical marriage is covenant fidelity. Procreation is secondary to that, which is why marriage is still possible without procreation.

Keen then claims that she already anticipated my objection in her book by responding to the Catholic position that prohibits impotent people from marrying. She says, Thus, if you are a heterosexual person who happens to have a disability affecting penis-vagina sex, you are forced to live your entire life single because the meaning of marriage is reduced to this sole act.

It seems here that Keen misunderstands my view. Agreeing with her that mutual understanding is important in any discussion, allow me to clarify my view.

Biblically, marriage is described as a permanent union composed of male and female (Gen 2:24, Matt 19:3-6). But what about male-female marriages that cannot procreate? What about sterile couples? Can they qualify as marriage? The answer is that they can still qualify as the kind of relationship that, when operating according to the biological design of male-female, naturally produces children. If children do not result, then there is something broken in the way the biological union is meant to function. This can be due to either infertility or damaged sex organs. But the brokenness of biological reproductive organs does not eliminate the presence of biological complementarity.

This is why same-sex unions cannot accurately be described as “sterile. Sterility implies a failure of the reproductive system to function towards its proper end.[2] An opposite sex couple can be sterile if they are unable to conceive, but a same-sex couple cannot be sterile because their bodies aren’t structured toward procreation; they are intrinsically non-procreative in kind. Opposite-sex and same-sex unions are different in terms of kind.

Does the Bible Support Same-Sex Relationships?

Keen opens her response by critiquing my claim that her book makes the case that the Bible supports same-sex relationships. “No,” says Keen, “I don’t say that the Bible supports same-sex relationships.” Fair enough. She might not say that in these words. But the point of the book is to argue that there is Scriptural merit for some faithful same-sex unions.

One of her biggest claims, which is commonly made by revisionist scholars, is that the biblical authors do not write about the morality of consensual same-sex relationships as we know them today, and Paul never addresses the situation of a gay person who is unable to achieve celibacy. In other words, biblical writers condemned a different kind of same-sex relationship (e.g., pederasty, sex with slaves), but not the kind of “monogamous, covenanted relationships” we see today.

Thus, if we understand that marriage is about covenant faithfulness (and only secondarily about gender), as she claims, then the Bible would affirm some same-sex relationships. Thus, as I said in my original post, her view does make the case that the Bible supports same-sex relationships. At least it supports some same-sex relationships, which is an affirming position. My statement could certainly use nuance, but this is different than saying it is incorrect.

The book argues that there is the possibility of some same-sex unions being honoring to God, which seems to be why, at the end of the book, she says, My response to traditionalists is not, ‘No, you are wrong’ or even ‘Yes, but.’ My reply is ‘Yes, and.’”

But ironically, in saying that Scripture supports some same-sex unions, she is saying that conservatives are wrong. The “and” in her statement above implies that she believes there are some same-sex unions that are a “Spirit-led option,” which means the Bible does support same-sex relationships. This cannot be squared with the historic Christian position that marriage is a one-flesh union between two sexually different persons. And this is why, once again, we cannot avoid the question of gender differences and the nature of marriage.

Does the Conservative View Harm Gays?

Keen accuses me of ignoring the substance of the chapter on celibacy when I focus on her claim that conservatives who reject same-sex unions are responsible for the “problem of promiscuity and broken relationships” as well as “deep depression, suicidal ideation, and self-destructive coping mechanisms” among gay people. To this charge I plead guilty. She’s right–I ignored the chapter on celibacy. But the reasons, again, are important. First, as I indicate above, people have already addressed this claim. But second, her point is one of the most rhetorically effective claims that causes people to reconsider the historic Christian view–and it rarely gets challenged. She is saying that the entire conservative Christian church has blood on its hands. I would like some evidence to back this up.

Thus, allow me to repeat my claim: There is currently no empirical evidence that the church’s stance on sexuality is the cause of suicide among the LGBTQ population. Now, there are stories of people who attribute their suffering to historic Christian teaching (and as I said in my last post, my heart breaks for them). But there are also stories of people who have found freedom through embracing historic biblical teaching. Daniel Mattson, for instance, is a single same-sex attracted Christian. Although he describes moments of “bone-crushing” loneliness, he credits historic Christian teaching as being the source of peace for those with same-sex attraction.[3] Here is the reality: There are anecdotes on both sides of the issue. Stories alone will not settle the issue.

The problem is not the teaching itself but how people process it, which can be very different based upon their theology, relationships, experience, and a host of other factors. To simply blame the teaching itself–and thus all conservatives–is too simplistic. So many other relational and emotional factors are involved too.

Keen points to a study in Reuters to support her claim.[4] Yet there are two key problems with using this study (and others like it). First, it can identify correlation, but it cannot draw causation. Second, this study itself says it is limited. For instance, the authors of the study note that it “is limited by a lack of detail about whether a participant’s specific religion had stigmatizing views of sexual minorities.” In other words, the study makes no distinction between a church like Westboro Baptist, between one that holds to historic Christian teaching with grace, kindness, and love, or between a gay-affirming church! What if it's the views of the gay-affirming church which cause suicide? From the study, we don't know. Simplistic claims do not bring us any closer to the solution.

As further support of this second point, one of the study authors noted, “Some sexual minority folks are really at odds. They feel very confused or they feel that they are in conflict with their faith because of who they are. That’s a very scary place to be in.” And then he goes on to observe, “We are definitely not saying that religion, period, is bad; it’s not. There are many sexual minority people who find great strength and great sources of support in their religious communities, but unfortunately we hear many stories about people who do not.”

Interestingly, a recent study actually found the opposite of what Keen claims.[5] The authors claim: “Religious affiliation among sexual and gender minorities is a significant predictor of happiness” among LGBT people and “there are no significant differences in subjective well-being between LGBT individuals who identify as evangelical Protestants…despite that conservative denominations do not affirm same-sex relations…compared to those who identify as mainline Protestant.” Not only is there no direct empirical support in favor of her position, there is some evidence against it.

And as I noted in my response, there is reason to believe that emotional suffering in the lives of gay people lies elsewhere. If we truly love gay people, won’t we be sure to accurately identify the real problem?

With that said, I am not denying that the church has done some harm to LGBTQ people. I stand with Karen in aggressively opposing gay bullying and shame that some Christians have played a role in; I oppose Christian parents kicking their gay teenage kids out of the house; I abhor the high suicide rates among gay kids and encourage the church to rise up and provide safe places for gay teens to wrestle with their sexuality in the context of a loving community. It’s simply not empirically supported to say that this kind of posture is contributing to the suicide rate among gay people.

The “Deliberative Process”

Keen would like me (and other critics) to engage her “key” arguments in the book. I am not going to address all of them, because as I said in the introduction to this post, if gender differences are a central part of God’s design for marriage, then these points lose their force. But I will consider one.

In chapters four and five, Keen claims that Scripture itself teaches us that biblical mandates, including creation ordinances, cannot be applied without a “deliberative process.” This partly involves considering the underlying intent of the law as well as its relationship to cultivating a good and just society. Biblical authors, according to Keen, did not view revelation as inflexible and impervious, but “understood that laws need to be interpreted with discernment, not blindly applied without regard for context.

Specifically, she points to examples of how both Matthew and Paul add exceptions to prior teaching because their situations demanded it. She notes, “Biblical authors did not consider that a reason to forgo a discernment process. Paul encountered a situation that Jesus had not addressed.” This is true, but quite obviously, Paul and Matthew had unique apostolic authority. They were writing Scripture, as inspired prophets of God, not simply applying a text to their day (see 2 Tim 3:16, 2 Peter 1:21).

Keen then offers the principle of discerning human need in how we approach the law. For instance, she cites how Jesus excuses David for eating sacred bread because David was hungry (Matt 12:3-4). She writes, “So, why does Jesus excuse what David did? Because he was hungry" (emphasis in original).

But Jesus is making a different point. Rather than showing people how to live out the law in accordance with their perception of human need, he is making a Christological point about his authority and identity. Jesus didn’t say the disciples were justified to eat the bread because of their hunger. Rather, they were permitted because of his authority as the divine messiah. In other words, if David, who was God’s anointed one, had authority to enter the House of God and eat the bread of Presence, then how much more does Jesus? R.T. France observes:

“Ahimelech’s willingness to bend the rules must be related to his assumption that David, as not only the king’s emissary but also himself the anointed successor to Saul, and now engaged on a holy mission (1 Sam 21:4–5), stood in a category apart from other Israelites. It was David, as David, who was permitted to do what was not lawful; and now Jesus places his own authority alongside that of David. Matthew, as the evangelist who most often portrays Jesus as ‘son of David,’ is the more likely to have appreciated the force of this Christological argument.”[6]

Jesus is not changing how the Law relates to us, but He is clarifying how the Law relates to Him. He and His mission are greater than the Law (Matt. 12:6, 8). This is not a deliberative process of applying the Law to our lives but teaching about how the ritual Law applies to Christ.

Keen then points to how Jesus addresses Sabbath law in subsequent verses. She cites the examples of how Jesus says it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath, which would include helping a sheep if it has fallen into a pit (v. 11) or healing a man with a withered hand (v. 13). In doing these acts, Keen is right that Jesus did not break the Sabbath law. But he is not teaching a “deliberative process,” as she claims, for applying Scriptural commands based on human need. Rather, he is pointing back to the original intent of the Sabbath, which was never meant to be carried out in a legalistic uncaring manner. In other words, Jesus points back to God’s creation of Sabbath laws, and how they were originally meant for human good, but the Pharisees have added manmade regulations and missed the true intent of the law. Jesus, not the Pharisees, is the one who can properly interpret the law.

Jesus takes the same approach with marriage. When the Pharisees ask him about divorce, he points back to God’s intended design at creation, namely, that it is between one man and woman, who become one flesh, for one lifetime (Genesis 1:27; 2:24; Matthew 19:3-6). The Pharisees missed the true intent of Sabbath, and so Jesus reminds them of its original purpose. And they also missed God’s intent for marriage and so Jesus brings them back to its design as both permanent and sexed (male and female).

Jesus shows that he felt free to disregard Pharisaical laws regarding the Sabbath. But, according to Craig Blomberg, “his words will suggest more than this, namely, that the Fourth Commandment itself is fulfilled in him and therefore need no longer be observed literally. The apostle Paul will make these conclusions more explicit in Col 2:16–17 and Rom 14:5–6.”[7] No such qualifications were ever added for the nature of marriage. Jesus affirmed that God’s original design for marriage still stands.

In the same passage in Matthew, Jesus asks, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath?” The answer, of course, is yes. It is good to heal on the Sabbath. But the goodness of these actions cannot be separated from the parameters of God’s moral law. It is never good to disobey God’s moral law, which is why being virtuous means avoiding sins such as sexual immorality (porneia), jealousy, fits of anger, and drunkenness (Galatians 5:18-21). Love is much more than obeying God’s moral law, but it is no less. When it comes to ritual prescriptions, we are not to let slavish obedience stop us from loving people and understanding the greater intent of the law. But when it comes to God’s moral commands, loving people requires obedience (see John 14:15).

In relation to the same passage, Keen then observes, “Jesus essentially says, yes, hypothetically even if he had violated the Sabbath law, God’s law cannot be applied accurately without a deliberative process.” This also misses the point. Yes, Jesus is setting up a hypothetical situation, but not the one she insists. Rather, Jesus says, hypothetically even if he had violated the Sabbath law, he was justified because he is the One who instituted the Sabbath in the first place. Jesus is making a point about his divine authority, not how people are to apply a “deliberative process” to the commands. This is why Jesus says, “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (v. 8).

My concern is that Keen is putting words into the mouth of Jesus and missing the key Christological point he is making about being “greater than the temple,” and “Lord of the Sabbath.” Yes, we are to have tremendous compassion, empathy, and mercy in how we live out God’s commands, but we must always remember God’s original intent for the law and the authority Jesus had to interpret it. Otherwise, like the Pharisees, we risk mishandling Scripture.

Final Thoughts

As I said in my first review, Scripture, Ethics & The Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships is a compelling book for the affirming position. But it falls short on both the primary and secondary arguments.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

[1] For instance, in his 1997 book, Singles at the Crossroads, Albert Y. Hsu anticipates Keen’s claim that Scripture teaches that lifelong celibacy is not achievable for every person. According to Hsu, Jesus and Paul were making a different point.

[2] See S. Gurunath, Z. Pandian, Richard A. Anderson, and Siladitya Bhattacharya, “Defining infertility—a systematic review of prevalence studies,” in Human Reproductive Update, Vol. 17, No. 5 (April 2011): 575-588.

[3] See Daniel C. Mattson, Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2016) and “Total Abandonment to Divine Providence and the Permissive Will of God,” in Living the Truth in Love, ed. By Janet E. Smith and Father Paul Check (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015), 155-170.

[4] Anne Harding, “Religious faith linked to suicidal behavior in LGBQ adults,” (April 13, 2018):

[5] M.N. Barringer and David A. Gay, “Happily Religious: The Surprising Sources of Happiness Among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Adults,” Sociological Inquiry 87 (2017): 75-96.

[6] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (The New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007), 459.

[7] Craig Blomberg, Matthew (vol. 22; The New American Commentary; Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 195–196.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell, TikTok, Instagram, and his blog: