Marriage, Scripture, and the Church: A Review

Ed Shaw
Reviews 3 mins

Darrin W. Snyder Belousek, Marriage, Scripture, and the Church: Theological Discernment on the Question of Same-Sex Union (Baker, 2021)

In his afterword to this excellent new book my friend Wes Hill writes:

You’ve reached the end of one of the most careful, judicious, and cogent defenses of the so-called traditional Christian view of marriage and sexuality that we now have (p.289).

He is right. Belousek has done us all a service by writing Marriage, Scripture and the Church. It’s now the book I’d now recommend, alongside James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Eerdmans, 2013), for anyone wanting to take a deep dive into the best arguments for (Brownson) and against (Belousek) acceptance of same-sex sexual relationships within Christian communities.

Why would I recommend Belousek so highly? Here are a just a few reasons:

His considered language

Right from the start it is very clear that you are not reading a pastorally insensitive polemic but the charitable and scholarly work of a Christian academic who is wanting to demonstrate the best sides of both Church and academy. The care he takes in labelling the main different viewpoints is one good example of this – choosing to talk of ‘traditionalists’ and ‘innovationists’ rather than any of the more loaded terms like ‘conservative’ or ‘biblical’ versus ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’.

His careful listening

Belousek has done his research. An initial glance at the extensive bibliography shows this, as does the range of arguments he interacts with in the book itself, and the fact that there are numerous online appendices that go into even greater depth than he has space for in his 330-page book. He has especially paid attention to the voices of gay Christians (from a range of perspectives).

The greatest benefit of all of this is that he is not just doing the tired ‘proof text parade’ but responding to some of the more powerful contemporary arguments for Christian acceptance of same-sex sexual relationships, in particular, the parallel many have attempted to create between the inclusion of Gentile believers in the early Church and the inclusion of sexually active gay people in the Church of today. His analysis of the arguments that focus in on the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 are especially helpful, as is his constant call to see the obvious (and not so obvious) flaws in the various other biblical comparisons attempted by innovationists (like apparent changes to the Church’s teaching and practice regarding slavery, divorce and women in leadership). Belousek knows where the current debate is at more than any other traditionalist author I have read recently, and this is a huge benefit to this volume.

His big-picture focus

The main strength of his book is his focus on a biblical and historical theology of marriage (and sex within it). The second part of the book does this in one of the most persuasive ways I have come across, as he moves from examining Scripture and tradition onto Jesus’ life and teaching in the Gospels and then early Church practice and on through various controversies ever since. He rightly determines that Jesus’ own teaching on marriage is the strongest part of the traditionalist position: 

When we look back with Jesus to creation, we see marriage established: God's purpose at creation's beginning for marriage as man-woman monogamy. And when we look forward with Jesus to resurrection, we see marriage surpassed: God's promise at creation's completion of life-beyond-marriage in life-beyond-death. When we look with the vision of Jesus in the Gospels - whether toward the beginning or toward the end – same-sex union does not appear on either horizon (p.78).

But this embracing of a traditionalist view does not stop him from challenging bad traditionalist arguments and practice.

His personal integrity

He challenges his own fellow traditionalists in how often we have been guilty of altering Jesus’ teaching on marriage – in embracing a lax approach to remarriage after biblically unwarranted divorce and in not recognising enough the central role of procreation in the Christian vision of marriage. Most impressively of all, he is open and honest about his own sexual sin. As a gay Christian I often hear other Christians say that they are up for recognising their own theoretical sinfulness when it comes to expressing their sexuality – Belousek is, I think, unique in openly talking about some of what that has actually looked like for him.

His pastoral challenge

So, although this is in many ways an academic tome (evidenced by use of words like 'fecund' and 'apodictic') it does also manage to be both personal and pastoral in feel. Like us at Living Out, Belosek’s call to fellow traditionalists is not to move away from our current understanding of Scripture when it comes to marriage and sex, but to repent of inconsistencies in our application of it and the many insensitivities (at best) in our care of the sexual minorities in our midst. As a result, those traditionalists reading this book will have both their convictions strengthened and their practices challenged.

I will be fascinated to read an innovationist review of this book. I have yet to read anyone who takes on his kind of traditionalist Bible overview of marriage and sex with as much grace and truth as Belousek takes on their strongest arguments. I wonder why?