Colby Martin. Unclobber: Rethinking Our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. See here to purchase the book.
Colby Martin was a pastor at a megachurch. He was dismissed from his position when he posted a status on Facebook applauding the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT). In UnClobber, Martin tells this story. Martin also offers an alternative interpretation of biblical passages that many Christians regard as opposed to same-sex intercourse. For Martin, the Bible, when properly understood, does not issue a blanket condemnation of homosexual relationships.
Here are some thoughts:
A. Martin’s story about how he came to an accepting position regarding homosexuality is different from many such stories. In many such stories, a conservative Christian naively thought that homosexuality was a sin until he met someone who was gay, and that transformed his perspective. Martin was a conservative Christian, but his background story is more complex than that. Martin discusses what may be roots of his later accepting position. When he was a child, he had a gay neighbor, and his mother accepted her as a neighbor, while still believing that homosexuality was a sin. But Martin somewhat minimizes this as a factor when he says that this gay neighbor was a distant memory to him. Martin says that a factor behind his accepting position was that he did not like the idea of rejecting people. Martin may be struggling to identify and to articulate what exactly led him to his current position. His story on this is neither smooth nor dramatic from a narrative standpoint, and so it does have a rather detached quality. Still, the story is honest: Martin does not try to make his story something that it is not.
B. While his attempts to describe the roots of his current position were somewhat muddled, his narration about his experiences with the megachurch and his attempts to find employment and God’s calling after that was vivid and compelling. Martin had stories about service and friendship, even with those with whom he disagreed. His stories had ups and downs: you think you have a “happily ever after,” then reality sets in! And Martin makes a reflective point about how the current Colby Martin differs from the Colby Martin who defended his position before the megachurch elders.
C. Are the parts of the book that concern biblical interpretation superfluous, in light of all of the books out there that offer a pro-gay (or at least not anti-homosexuality) interpretation of Scripture? I have not read the books that Justin Lee and Matthew Vines wrote about homosexuality. But I have read the late John Boswell’s works, and I heard a lecture in college a while back by a gay evangelical, who presented interpretations of Scripture that were not opposed to homosexual relationships. Even with that in my background, I still learned things that I did not know before in reading Martin’s book. Some examples: Martin refers to the work of Calvin Porter in arguing that Romans 1:26-27 does not reflect Paul’s actual perspective but is included for rhetorical purposes (to criticize the Jews who condemn Gentiles): Porter argued that God abandons people to their sins in Romans 1:26-27 but that Paul believed that God is faithful. Martin refers to a passage in which Augustine regards non-procreative sex as unnatural, and Martin believes that may be helpful in interpreting Romans 1:26-27. In discussing I Corinthians 6:9-10, Martin makes the usual points about malakos and arsenokoitai, but he looks at the other sins in that passage and concludes that the passage is condemning exploitative homosexual activity, not same-sex activity in general, and that exploitation is contrary to what God is doing in establishing the Kingdom of God.
D. Martin’s statements about the ancient context of biblical writings are sometimes impressive, and sometimes not. Martin notes that homosexual rape in the days of the Hebrew Bible was often a way of shaming people, and that this was what was going on in Genesis 19. Martin states that pederasty was becoming more stigmatized in the Greco-Roman world by the time of the apostle Paul. Martin includes a thoughtful discussion of eunuchs and how they included not only men whose genitals were cut off, but also men who naturally were not attracted to women, and they were accepted in early Christianity. These were areas in which Martin was impressive. Where was he unimpressive? Martin said that Paul would have been unaware of committed same-sex relationships, so Paul was not condemning them. But Martin should have interacted with scholars who argue the contrary: that committed, loving homosexual relationships existed in the ancient world. Robert Gagnon argues this on the conservative side, and Louis Crompton, who was a prominent figure in gay studies, also argued this. Overall, although Martin made relevant observations and consulted scholarly sources, he should have written more about how homosexuality or homosexual activity was viewed in the ancient world.
E. Martin’s interpretation of Leviticus 18:22 raised good questions, yet it was unsatisfactory. Martin asks why Leviticus 18:22 does not condemn sex between women, if its intention is to issue a blanket condemnation of same-sex intercourse. That is a good question. Martin also did well to do a word study of toevah (abomination), and he astutely noted that the term in the Bible sometimes applies to things that conservative Christians today deem acceptable (i.e., eating certain animals). Where was Martin’s interpretation unsatisfactory? Martin was trying to argue, on the basis of Hebrew language, that Leviticus 18:22 applies to a very specific case and is not a blanket condemnation of homosexuality. Martin’s arguments here were not very convincing (at least not to me) for a variety of reasons, but what was especially disappointing was that Martin did not specify what that very specific case in Leviticus 18:22 was, and he seemed to imply that the meaning is lost to us, since we did not live in that time. He should have at least speculated! (He may have been implying that Leviticus 18:22 condemns a man sleeping with a man rather than his own wife, or sleeping with a man in the bed in which he sleeps with his wife; Martin was unclear.) In addition, Martin argued that Leviticus 18:22 concerns the separation of Israel from the Gentiles. Martin ignored that Leviticus 18:30 criticizes the Canaanites for doing the acts condemned in Leviticus 18, which implies that God did not want Gentiles to do those acts, either.
F. Martin seems to acknowledge in one place that a gay person would have been stigmatized in ancient Israel. Martin’s response to this is that women were second-class in ancient Israel, too, but that does not mean women should be second-class now. Martin does deserve credit for honestly engaging this, even though his point here does seem to be in tension with the overall case that he is trying to make. Ancient Israel was a society that assumed and privileged heterosexuality as the norm, and the Hebrew Bible does not seem to contradict this. Similarly, while the apostle Paul sees celibacy as an option, he assumes that marriage is an institution between a man and a woman. Martin’s approach to the Scriptures is rather conservative, at least overall; Martin does flirt, somewhat, with progressive revelation in the book, but he appears, overall, to regard the Bible as inspired by God. That would explain his interest in what the Bible teaches, and his detailed look at biblical passages. But, if God inspired Scripture, as Martin assumes, and God wanted homosexuality to be accepted, why didn’t God explicitly say so?
G. Related to (F.), Martin addresses the question of whether relationships should influence one’s theological stances. He states that this occurred with Cornelius and Peter in the Book of Acts: Peter had a religious stance against Gentiles, God led him to Cornelius, and that led Peter to change his mind. Martin’s argument here can be critiqued, but Martin does well to highlight the importance of experience in the Bible, especially when some conservative Christians seem to set the Bible against experience and to say that the Bible should trump experience. Martin’s book perhaps could have been stronger had Martin also noted times in the Bible when biblical law seemed to be overridden in certain cases (or so one can argue): Deuteronomy 23, for example, bans people with crushed genitals and certain foreigners from the congregation of the LORD, but the Book of Ruth and Isaiah 56 arguably have a different view, one that is more inclusive. Martin occasionally points out that the Bible is not overly rigid, but the book would have been better had he made this more of a theme.
H. Martin should have addressed the criticism of same-sex intercourse within the history of biblical interpretation. If Martin’s interpretations are correct, why did so many Jewish and Christian interpreters throughout history miss that, or criticize same-sex intercourse?
While Martin was not always convincing, his book was an edifying, thought-provoking read. He could have been less dogmatic, in places, and instead tried to come across as one presenting different options, which was what he was essentially doing in his arguments. At the same time, his dogmatism may be a part of his strength and his vision.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.