Book Reviews: Sexuality and Gender

I’ve read a lot of books in the last couple of years. These books helped me to understand more about how sexuality and gender, and their relationship with the church. I believe that each of these would be valuable to you, for varying reasons. I’ve included the Amazon blurb for each, as well as a link to the Amazon listing for the book.

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Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships” by James V. Brownson

Available on Amazon

This would be perhaps my top recommendation for understanding the question of same-sex relationships. It’s an incredibly careful and detailed investigation of scripture and the Bible’s references to same-sex matters of all kinds. But more than that, the author very diligently and patiently addresses the practicalities of the debate within the Church today, trying to help reframe the discussion in such a way that the conversation is useful for real solutions instead of just arguments.
(Reviewed September 2022)

Amazon description: This thought-provoking book by James Brownson develops a broad, cross-cultural sexual ethic from Scripture, locates current debates over homosexuality in that wider context, and explores why the Bible speaks the way it does about same-sex relationships.

Fairly presenting both sides in this polarized debate — "traditional" and "revisionist" — Brownson conscientiously analyzes all of the pertinent biblical texts and helpfully identifies "stuck points" in the ongoing debate. In the process, he explores key concepts that inform our understanding of the biblical texts, including patriarchy, complementarity, purity and impurity, honor and shame. Central to his argument is the need to uncover the moral logic behind the text.

Written in order to serve and inform the ongoing debate in many denominations over the questions of homosexuality, Brownson’s in-depth study will prove a useful resource for Christians who want to form a considered opinion on this important issue.

God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships” by Matthew Vines

Available on Amazon

I cannot say much more than the extensive review below already says, but I will add this: out of all the books I’ve read so far that address homosexuality and the Bible, this is one of the top three that I’d recommend. As Evans says below, it’s a winsome and inviting book to read, but if you’re coming into it from a non-affirming perspective, it will require some careful soul-searching and prayer to absorb what the author presents. I found it supremely useful in firming up what I felt like the Lord was asking of me in my search for truth in this area.
(Reviewed September 2022)

Amazon description: “God and the Gay Christian is a game changer. Winsome, accessible, and carefully researched, every page is brought to life by the author’s clear love for Scripture and deep, persistent faith. With this book, Matthew Vines emerges as one of my generation’s most important Christian leaders, not only on matters of sexuality but also on what it means to follow Jesus with wisdom, humility, and grace. Prepare to be challenged and enlightened, provoked and inspired. Read with an open heart and mind, and you are bound to be changed.”

— Rachel Held Evans, author of A Year of Biblical Womanhood and Faith Unraveled

As a young Christian man, Matthew Vines harbored the same basic hopes of most young people: to someday share his life with someone, to build a family of his own, to give and receive love. But when he realized he was gay, those hopes were called into question. The Bible, he’d been taught, condemned gay relationships.

Feeling the tension between his understanding of the Bible and the reality of his same-sex orientation, Vines devoted years of intensive research into what the Bible says about homosexuality. With care and precision, Vines asked questions such as:

  • Do biblical teachings on the marriage covenant preclude same-sex marriage or not?
  • How should we apply the teachings of Jesus to the gay debate?
  • What does the story of Sodom and Gomorrah really say about human relationships?
  • Can celibacy be a calling when it is mandated, not chosen?
  • What did Paul have in mind when he warned against same-sex relations?

    Unique in its affirmation of both an orthodox faith and sexual diversity, God and the Gay Christian is likely to spark heated debate, sincere soul searching, even widespread cultural change. Not only is it a compelling interpretation of key biblical texts about same-sex relations, it is also the story of a young man navigating relationships with his family, his hometown church, and the Christian church at large as he expresses what it means to be a faithful gay Christian.

    Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships” by Karen R. Keen

    Available on Amazon

    This book, written by a woman who identifies as having a homosexual orientation, yet chose to be celibate for 16 years to honor what she was taught about homosexuality, is a very careful deep dive into the Bible’s perspectives on sexual relationships. Her analysis spans literally millennia of literature and religious thinking, and carefully considers what the Bible actually says compared to what non-affirming conservatives have said it says.
    (Reviewed September 2022)

    Amazon description: When it comes to same-sex relationships, this book by Karen Keen contains the most thoughtful, balanced, biblically grounded discussion you’re likely to encounter anywhere. With pastoral sensitivity and respect for biblical authority, Keen breaks through current stalemates in the debate surrounding faith and sexual identity.

    The fresh, evenhanded reevaluation of Scripture, Christian tradition, theology, and science in Keen’s Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships will appeal to both traditionalist and progressive church leaders and parishioners, students of ethics and biblical studies, and gay and lesbian people who often feel painfully torn between faith and sexuality.

    The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage: An Evangelical’s Change of Heart” by Mark Achtemeier

    Available on Amazon

    This book, together with "Unclobber," seriously challenged my understanding of the main verses used to attack LGBT people and reject all forms of non-cisgender, non-binary understanding. Very well argued and compelling, although its conclusions are so drastically different than what I grew up with that it will take some time to think it through.
    (Reviewed January 2022)

    Amazon description: In the early 2000’s, Mark Achtemeier embarked on a personal journey with the Bible that led him from being a conservative, evangelical opponent of gay rights to an outspoken activist for gay marriage and a fully inclusive church. In The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage, Achtemeier shares what led to his change of heart: the problems with excluding groups of people and the insights into the Bible’s message that led him to recognize the fullness of God’s love and support for LGBT persons. Readers will discover how reading snippets of Scripture out of context has led to false and misleading interpretations of the Bible’s message for gay people. Achtemeier shows how a careful reading of the whole Scripture reveals God’s good news about love, marriage, and sexuality for gay and straight people alike.

    UnClobber: Rethinking Our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality” by Colby Martin and Glennon Doyle Melton

    Available on Amazon

    This book, together with "The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage," seriously challenged my understanding of the main verses used to attack LGBT people and reject all forms of non-cisgender, non-binary understanding. Very well argued and compelling, although its conclusions are so drastically different than what I grew up with that it will take some time to think it through.
    (Reviewed January 2022)

    Amazon description: Churches in America are experiencing an unprecedented fracturing due to their belief and attitude toward the LGBTQ community. Armed with only six passages in the Bible–often known as the "clobber passages"–the traditional Christian position has been one that stands against the full inclusion of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Unclobber reexamines each of those frequently quoted passages of Scripture, alternating with author Colby Martin’s own story of being fired from an evangelical megachurch when they discovered his stance on sexuality. UnClobber reexamines what the Bible says (and does not say) about homosexuality in such a way that breathes fresh life into outdated and inaccurate assumptions and interpretations.

    Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology)” by Preston Sprinkle

    Available on Amazon

    This was a superb book and was extremely valuable to me. The format is:

  • An extended essay on the topic of homosexuality and the church by a knowledgeable and respected author

  • Three other authors critiquing that essay

  • The essay’s author rejoinder to the critiques.

    This pattern is repeated for four essays. So, it’s presented as a friendly and respectful debate between four peers on a very difficult topic.

    Some of the discussion was purely exegetical – investigating how the scriptures discuss the topic. Some was experiential – one of the writers is a celibate gay man, for example, discussing his personal self-awareness and choices to be non-affirming in light of what he finds in the scriptures. All the authors are well-educated and very careful in their presentation. And importantly, each of them were self-critical in their essays, anticipating and addressing challenges proactively. This indicates to me a high degree of care and caution in their thinking, and a refusal to succumb to confirmation bias.

    Honestly, I found that each of the writers had some very strong points, and each of them had what I believe to be weaknesses in their position. As such, I didn’t find that this book settled the topic for me; rather, it helped to clarify the issues, and give me a sense that I had heard solid arguments on both sides of the issue, giving me room to make up my own mind from an informed position. In my view, this is the best kind of debate, where you end up being able to clearly articulate a position even if you choose against it.
    (Reviewed March 2022)

    Amazon description: Unique among most debates on homosexuality, this book presents a constructive dialogue between people who disagree on significant ethical and theological matters, and yet maintain a respectful and humanizing posture toward one another. Few topics are more divisive today than homosexuality. Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church brings a fresh perspective to a well-worn debate. While Christian debates about homosexuality are most often dominated by biblical exegesis, this book seeks to give much-needed attention to the rich history of received Christian tradition, bringing the Bible into conversation with historical and systematic theology. To that end, both theologians and biblical scholars–well accomplished in their fields and conversant in issues of sexuality and gender–articulate and defend each of the two views:

  • Affirming — represented by William Loader and Megan K. DeFranza
  • Traditional — represented by Wesley Hill and Stephen R. Holmes

    The main essays are followed by insightful responses that interact with their fellow essayists with civility. Holding to a high view of Scripture, a commitment to the gospel and the church, and a love for people–especially those most affected by this topic–the contributors wrestle deeply with the Bible and theology, especially the prohibition texts, the role of procreation, gender complementarity, and pastoral accommodation. The book concludes with reflections from general editor Preston Sprinkle on the future of discussions on faith and sexuality.

    Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God” by Megan K. DeFranza

    Available on Amazon

    I found this book to be useful in understanding the very timely issues of intersex and gender, and how they relate to God’s view of us as stated in the Bible.
    (Reviewed March 2022)

    Amazon description: How different are men and women? When does it matter to us — or to God? Are male and female the only two options? In Sex Difference in Christian Theology Megan DeFranza explores such questions in light of the Bible, theology, and science. Many Christians, entrenched in culture wars over sexual ethics, are either ignorant of the existence of intersex persons or avoid the inherent challenge they bring to the assumption that everybody is born after the pattern of either Adam or Eve. DeFranza argues, from a conservative theological standpoint, that all people are made in the image of God — male, female, and intersex — and that we must listen to and learn from the voices of the intersexed among us.

    Intersexion: A Story of Faith, Identity, and Authenticity” by Cynthia Vacca Davis

    Available on Amazon

    This was a quick read, and worth my time, even though I’d already become aware of the issues around intersexed persons. It gave an interesting few stories about how people deal with these complexities and especially the personal issues surrounding them. As I’ve recently realized that I needed to take an affirming position, it was good to hear the author’s story of the challenges she faced while "coming out" as affirming herself, dealing with all the conservative people who resisted this change in her.

    Whether or not you are willing to take an affirming position, and if you do, whether or not you are public in that position, I think it’s worth your time reading this book to get a sense of what goes on "behind the scenes" as people deal with these issues and all the turmoil that they cause. Understanding the struggles of others helps us treat them more compassionately.
    (Reviewed October 2022)

    Amazon description: Sometimes in life we reach an intersection where we must pick either safety or stepping into life as our true selves. It’s a moment of courage, vision, and finding our voice.

    Cynthia, an adjunct professor with a trunk full of ungraded papers and snack wrappers, has been an LGBTQIA+ ally for years—in convenient ways. She enjoys the company of her queer friends—but her support isn’t risky; it hasn’t cost her anything. Until she meets Danny. The youngest child in a conservative religious family, Danny played the role of dutiful daughter—Dani, with an "i"—which was safer than jeopardizing faith and family. Seemingly born female, yet desperate to be seen as the boy and then man he is, Danny kept playing along, until his life and health depended on one thing: the truth.

    Told in both Danny’s and Cynthia’s voices, Intersexion is a moving, hopeful exploration of the cost of being known—as an intersex minority, ally, or asker of difficult questions—and what it means to come into one’s own. It’s a book for anyone craving a more authentic life. It’s a story about the intersections we find ourselves in by no choice of our own, and the life-giving choices we can make.

    The Great Sex Rescue: The Lies You’ve Been Taught and How to Recover What God Intended” by Sheila Wray Gregoire

    Available on Amazon

    This was a really good book. My wife and I used to lead a young married couples group at our church, and conducted pre-marital counseling. For many years we used a number of evangelical books about marriage and sex. This book opened my eyes to a number of really damaging aspects to the doctrine and ideas promoted by those books. God is gracious, and we often caveated the teaching with "you have to really see if this advice fits your circumstance" so I hope those couples haven’t suffered as a result. But I seriously wish I had read this book 20 years ago before we set up so many couples for difficulty in marriage and the bed. You too should read it – even if you’ve avoided these traps, it’s really worth knowing about them for the next time a young couple asks you for advice.”
    (Reviewed March 2023)

    Amazon description: What if it’s not your fault that sex is bad in your marriage? Based on a groundbreaking in-depth survey of 22,000 Christian women, The Great Sex Rescue unlocks the secrets to what makes some marriages red hot while others fizzle out. Generations of women have grown up with messages about sex that make them feel dirty, used, or invisible, while men have been sold such a cheapened version of sex, they don’t know what they’re missing. The Great Sex Rescue hopes to turn all of that around, developing a truly biblical view of sex where mutuality, intimacy, and passion reign. The Great Sex Rescue pulls back the curtain on what is happening in Christian bedrooms and exposes the problematic teachings that wreck sex for so many couples–and the good teachings that leave others breathless. In the #metoo and #churchtoo era, not only is this book a long overdue corrective to church culture, it is poised to free thousands of couples from repressive and dissatisfying sex lives so that they can experience the kind of intimacy and wholeness God intended.

    Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians” by Austen Hartke

    Available on Amazon

    This was an extremely helpful book for me. It’s written by a transgender author, and tells dozens of stories of transgender individuals from their own perspective, and brings a lot of clarity to the thought processes and struggles they face, including with society and (perhaps more importantly) with the church. It would be hard to walk away from this book without a deep appreciation for the work they each have done to hold tightly onto their faith despite being told by so many people that God hates them or has rejected them.

    The book also gave me some fresh language and concepts so that it will be easier and safer for me to hold conversations with transgender people, and also to support them in their faith.

    Highly recommended.
    (Reviewed April 2023)

    Amazon description: In 2014, Time magazine announced that America had reached "the transgender tipping point," suggesting that transgender issues would become the next civil rights frontier. Years later, many people—even many LGBTQIA+ allies—still lack understanding of gender identity and the transgender experience. Into this void, trans biblical scholar Austen Hartke brings a biblically based, educational, and affirming resource to shed light and wisdom on gender expansiveness and Christian theology. This new edition offers updated terminology and statistics, plus new materials for congregational study, preaching, and pastoral care. Transforming deftly weaves ancient and modern stories that will change the way readers think about gender, the Bible, and the faith to which Jesus calls us. Hartke helps readers visualize a more inclusive Christianity, equipping them with the language, understanding, confidence, and tools to change both the church and the world.

    tke helps readers visualize a more inclusive Christianity, equipping them with the language, understanding, confidence, and tools to change both the church and the world.

    Shameless: A Case for Not Feeling Bad About Feeling Good (About Sex)” by Nadia Bolz-Weber

    Available on Amazon

    Let’s get this out at the beginning: this is not a book for the squeamish and prudish and the Purity Culture crowd. Well, actually it IS, and exactly aimed at helping them, but it’s going to be super hard to read, because it will challenge pretty much everything that evangelicals believe about sexuality. And as one review said, it’s “Rough, raw, way beyond edgy.” So you’ve been warned.

    With that said: the author raises a ton of very good points, and tips a ton of sacred cows along the way. No matter whether you end up agreeing with her, she’ll force you to see the flip side of what you’ve probably been taught most of your Christian life.

    On the other hand, I think some of the 1-star reviews offer a fair criticism: she dismisses a lot of traditional sexual ethics without much analysis, other than pointing out how they’ve harmed people. I am personally struggling with deciding how to balance the harmful fruit of a poorly-lived ethic with the possible good if that ethic were applied with righteousness. There are so many ways I’ve become aware that the modern evangelical church has utterly failed with its ethics, and created a ton of harmful fruit. That doesn’t mean those ethics and moralities are inherently bad. But if it CONSISTENTLY causes harmful fruit, perhaps it’s actually bad? It’s a tough thing to assess. I suppose I’m tending towards the idea that if the fruit is generally bad simply because the average human cannot apply the ethic properly, then the ethic is fundamentally broken. And Shameless points out a lot of very bad fruit and its causes.

    If nothing else, this book should make us think really hard about our sexual ethics, and whether they’re achievable or whether there’s a better way.

    (Reviewed December 2023)

    Amazon description: Negative messages about sex come from all corners of society: from the church, from the media, from our own families. As a result, countless people have suffered pain, guilt, and judgment. In this instant bestseller, Nadia Bolz-Weber unleashes her critical eye and her vulnerable yet hopeful soul on the harmful conversations about sex that have fed our shame.

    Bolz-Weber offers no simple amendments or polite compromises. Instead, this modern-day reverend calls for an inclusivity that empowers us to be loyal to people and, perhaps most important, ourselves. “Christianity is not a program for avoiding mistakes,” she writes. “It is a faith of the guilty.” With an alternative understanding of Scripture passages that have been weaponized against Christians for decades, Bolz-Weber reminds us that sexual flourishing can and should be for all genders, all bodies, and all humans. She shares stories, poetry, and Scripture that wage war on perpetual anxiety around sex by celebrating sexuality in all its forms and recognizing it for the gift that it is.

    If you’ve been mistreated, confused, angered, and/or wounded by shaming sexual messages, this one is for you.

    I’ll update this list as my reading continues.

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