by William Stacy Johnson. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006. ISBN 0-8028-2966-X. Hb., 320 pp. $25.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. … William Stacy Johnson believes that it is time: to address the issue of same-gender unions as a society and church and to lend his reasoned voice to the discussion. In A Time to Embrace he offers a well-documented, cogent argument in support of a welcoming and affirming posture toward persons in exclusively committed same-gender relationships. In so doing he traverses the terrain of religion, law, and politics, carefully reviewing where we have been, analyzing where we are, and setting forth a path for where we might go faithfully into the future. He limits his affirmation to those in committed, monogamous, egalitarian, same-gender relationships, for it is in these unions that he finds not only the possibility for compassionate support, but also the responsibility for faithful action.
The foundation for this conclusion is built substantially upon the study paper Johnson prepared for the Theological Task Force for Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Presbyterian Church. His review of scientific and historical studies, biblical interpretation, and legal precedents tracks significant moments and movements in the debate. His articulation of seven theological ways of looking at same-gender relationships ranging from prohibition to consecration provides a helpful spectrum of current positions and implicitly invites the reader to identify his or her own perspective. Creation, reconciliation, and redemption are the framework for his review and critique, as he identifies strengths and weaknesses of each position. The exegesis of significant biblical texts is enlightening and encourages honest reflection upon the consistencies and inconsistencies in one’s own reading of texts and context. One senses that the movement across this spectrum is a journey toward a culminating position. That position is consecration.
In consecration Johnson finds a position that is welcoming, affirming, yet also ordering; a position that embraces those in same-gender relationships and offers a means for blessing their commitment to one another while also setting parameters of mutual faithfulness within which to order their life together; a position that supports traditional marriage and same-gender unions in committed, exclusive, lifelong relationships. Such relationships, he suggests, are means of grace that do not depart from our biblical and theological traditions, but rather deepen them. As such, there is every reason to bless them.
In deciding how best they are to be blessed, Johnson looks at the purposes for marriage (companionship, commitment, and community) and concludes that they can be met in a committed same-gender union. He looks at the biblical witness and finds it silent about these committed, loving relationships; texts prohibit one-sided and exploitative behavior, not nuptial love. He sees marriage as a means of transformation and grace, and suggests that the burden is shifted to those who would withhold marriage from same-gender couples, to demonstrate why they should be treated differently.
Johnson then turns to legal and political considerations. Liberty and equality rights are at stake — the right of gay individuals to make decisions about their own lives and the right to be treated no differently from anyone else. Two recent Supreme Court cases firmly established those rights, and Johnson deftly analyzes the opinions in those cases (including dissenting opinions) and suggests their possible impact upon future issues before the court. State decisions in Massachusetts and Vermont addressed claims for same-gender marriage and civil unions, giving rise to legislative responses across the country on the state and federal level to define marriage and to limit civil unions or the granting of any rights comparable to those granted in traditional marriage. Many of those issues will be on ballots before us in coming days. Johnson strongly opposes them while advocating a welcoming, deliberative democracy that provides opportunity for all parties to participate and be heard in reasoned discussion. He acknowledges that incremental progress may be necessary while deliberative democracy continues to seek an enduring resolution.
Anyone willing to engage in the dialogue that Johnson seeks will find this book helpful. One may question his framework for assessment of theological positions, but not without offering an alternative framework. One may question his stated purposes for marriage, but not without offering alternatives that respond to his critiques. One may take issue with his proposed path forward, but not without offering an alternative vision with theological and biblical integrity.
A Time to Embrace embodies the grace that it seeks to extend. It welcomes reasoned dialogue and mutual understanding. It is a helpful resource for reflection, study, and discussion. On the same day that my copy arrived on my desk, so did a letter from Jerry Falwell urging support for a constitutional amendment in Virginia to strictly define marriage and prohibit same-gender unions. Johnson’s book couldn’t have been more timely!
John C. Peterson is pastor of Covenant Church in Staunton, Va.