This piece was first written as a briefing paper for a Church of England House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality. The outcome of the Working group was ‘The Pilling Report’ where it was published as an appendix in the ‘Pilling Report’ – the offering of It was published November 2013.
This paper traces the journey of Christians within the Evangelical tradition, holding a high view of the Bible, who have come to accept the place of committed, faithful same-sex relationships within the church, on the basis of (not in spite of) the teaching of scripture. (1)
‘Anglicans affirm the sovereign authority of the Holy Scriptures as the medium through which God by the Spirit communicates his word in the Church. The Scriptures are the “uniquely inspired witness to divine revelation, and the primary norm for Christian faith and life”. The Scriptures must be translated, read and understood, and their meaning grasped through a continuing process of interpretation …’ (2)
‘My confidence is not in the certainty of being right, but rather on the grace and mercy of God, before whom I have sought truth as best I can.’
Section 1: Some introductions
1.1. For simplicity I will refer to ‘Conserving Evangelicals’ and ‘Including Evangelicals’ in this paper (hereafter ‘CEs’ and ‘IEs’). Every label is a libel to some degree. The terms are chosen to express the faithful intent in each position and to affirm that they are partners in the gospel – and in this debate. The choice of verbs is also deliberate – to suggest movement and meeting rather than unyielding positions. (3)
1.2. For CEs and IEs obedient submission to the scriptures in personal discipleship and in the life and practice of the church is primary and non-negotiable . This commitment is experienced as a journey of constant discovery, re-discovery and renewal. So the challenge Evangelicals often pose to each other is not ‘Are we being biblical or not?’ but ‘are we being biblical enough’? CEs and IEs share a concern when any debate within the wider church appears to ignore, mis-read or marginalise the place of the Bible.
1.3. The point of division in this debate emerges in the task of ‘seeking meaning through a continuing process of interpretation.’ Here IEs, with others, have come to believe that there is place for faithful same-sex relationships in the church. Careful study and conversation persuades them there are fresh exegetical challenges to long-held convictions about what scripture teaches. This is undoubtedly influenced by the greater openness to same-sex relationships in society as a whole and thus to the reality of lives most personally shaped by it. This also means that the reading of scripture is now happening in participation with, and not at distance from, those whose lives and relationships are the particular focus of this debate.
1.4. It must be noted that IEs are no one group. However, one attempt to co-ordinate IEs is Accepting Evangelicals (4) which presently has just under 600 members. The majority are openly listed on their website. ‘Confidential’ membership is an option for ‘those who are concerned that their public support would put them at risk of prejudice or discrimination. Their names will remain confidential and will not appear on our website.’ 17% presently opt for confidential membership.
Their statement of aims summarises the IE position very well.
‘We are an open network of Evangelical Christians …
who believe the time has come to move towards the acceptance of faithful, loving same-sex partnerships at every level of church life, and the development of a positive Christian ethic for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Accepting Evangelicals is for everyone who would call themselves Evangelical.
people who believe that loving, faithful same-sex relationships built on mutual commitment and self-giving love are not condemned in the Bible and
people who are willing to accept the Christian integrity of those who affirm same-sex relationships, although they do not personally hold this view.
We welcome people from all Christian Churches, Fellowships & Denominations.’
1.5. This is a Tradition that contains strong divisions of opinion of this subject. At the tine of writing the wider Evangelical world is absorbing news that three very influential leaders on either side of the Atlantic – Steve Chalke, Jim Wallis and Rob Bell – have recently expressed support for faithful, same-sex relationships. (5)
Section 2 Reading Scripture
2.1. Debates on same-sex relationships focus all too quickly on ‘The Texts’ – those six or seven passages in the bible that actually speak of homosexuality or homosexual activity. IEs, along with other ‘revisionists’, are frequently asked to supply texts that support their view that scripture supports same-sex relationships. They cannot do so because there are none. But the lack of explicit biblical teaching on significant social and ethical issues is not the same as claiming there are no scriptural grounds to support a particular viewpoint.
2.2. The tendency to centre contentious debates around the absence or presence of supporting texts is actually strongly criticized by respected scholars within the Evangelical tradition. Bishop Tom Wright notes real dangers in assuming that what the Bible teaches on any issue can be determined by simply reading a Bible text or verse as if that is proof. ‘First, there is an implied, and quite unwarranted, positivism: we imagine that we are “reading the text, straight”, and that if somebody disagrees with us it must be because they, unlike we ourselves, are secretly using “presuppositions” of this or that sort. This is simply naive, and actually astonishingly arrogant and dangerous. It fuels the second point. Evangelicals often use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ when they mean the authority of evangelical, or Protestant theology, since the assumption is made that we (evangelicals, or Protestants) are the ones who know and believe what the Bible is saying … the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ can, by such routes, come to mean simply ‘the authority of evangelical tradition, as opposed to Catholic or rationalist ones.’ (6)
R T France expands on what faithful reading of scripture therefore demands. ‘A truly biblical hermeneutic must not confine itself to the overt pronouncements …. but must be open to the biblical evidence as a whole, including its narrative and incidental parts. When this broader approach is undertaken it may lead us to re-examine the way in which we have read the more ‘obvious’ texts … If this makes deriving guidance for the real world from the biblical text more complex than it might at first have seemed, so be it. Let us hope that by embracing the wider range of biblical evidence we are enabled to be more responsible in offering biblical guidance for the issues of our generation.’ (7)
2.3. Christian history warns of the hazards of using texts alone to establish the Biblical teaching on any issue. In the C18 slavery debate abolitionists were denounced as ‘revisionists’ on the basis of the ‘plain meaning’ of bible texts. ‘No examples of more willful and violent perversions of the sacred text are to be found [than] in the writings of the abolitionists. They seem to consider themselves above the scriptures…’ . (8) The mandate for the enslaving of black Africans was found in Genesis 9:20-25. In addition Rom 13:1-7, 1 Cor 7:20-21, Col 3:22-25, 1 Tim 6:1-6 and Titus 2:9, were all quoted in support of slavery, as was Paul’s apparent acceptance of it and the silence of Jesus on the subject.
The Christian church today believes slavery to be evil and wrong on the basis of biblical teaching and ethics. But on what scriptural basis? Nowhere in the OT or NT is slavery actually condemned – quite the reverse in fact. So for in significant periods of Christian history it has been worryingly easy for churches to teach and support slavery in its most abhorrent forms and preach ‘Onesimus’ (at best) to slaves as their role model. (9)
2.4. A reading of Evangelical history reveals a tradition that, though often fiercely reactive at first, will move to revise, reverse or adopt ‘including’ positions on important social and ethical issues it previously opposed on the grounds of scripture. The list would include slavery, apartheid, usury, divorce and remarriage, contraception and women in society and the church. This observation makes no presumption as to conclusions on same-sex relationships. I simply observe that the unsettling process of reading, re-examining, repenting, re-interpreting and revising even long unquestioned Biblical convictions under the compelling of the Spirit is not a task this conserving tradition is unfamiliar with nor unwilling to undertake. Indeed its own understanding of scripture requires it.
Section 3: IEs, Scripture and ‘The Texts’
This is very familiar ground on all sides of the debate. I will engage here with some aspects of those few biblical texts that mention homosexuality, and only in sufficient detail to show the reasons that IEs have moved from traditional interpretations. I hope this proves more illuminating than frustrating. There is always more that could be said on all sides.
In more recent debate there has been a move away from a focus on individual texts towards a concern to read them in the context of the wider biblical narrative. This is to be welcomed. For the understanding of human identity and vocation needs setting in the context of God’s intention for the whole of creation.
For this reason I start with the creation stories in Genesis.
3.1. Genesis 2 – human origin and vocation
3.1.1. Revisiting the ‘Traditional’ reading
In the traditional reading Adam, the first human being, is created from the dust and breathed into life in the goodness of creation. But he is alone. God provides a partner for him – a woman. Created in God’s image, the mutual joy and partnership of the man and woman in marriage affirms God’s created intention for humanity. They are literally made for each other. This ordering, by definition therefore, must exclude homosexual relationships.
Of course it is right that any account of the origin of humanity must of necessity be of the creation and sexual union of a man and a women. Heterosexual relating is ‘typical’ in creation and it is not only the Hebrew and Christian traditions that have therefore created forms of public covenant for this relationship to ensure its honouring and protection in society.
It is sometimes argued that the whole created order has a bi-focused structure. (a more familiar term for this is ‘complementarity’ but that word needs more careful defining in this context). In this view the heterosexual marriage and the union of husband and wife together is a central expression and metaphor for God’s plan for the both the original creation and the new creation.
This approach does raise a number of questions.
i. For Christians the starting place for understanding the Divine intention for life is Jesus Christ and the community that comes into being through his words and deeds. Now Jesus strongly affirmed the place of marriage. But he also insisted that a redeemed, gospel community must not only transcend such (bi-focused) social institutions but even renounce them. (Lk 14.26) Marriage itself is for this age only (Matt 22.30).
ii. Doesn’t a bi-focused reading of Genesis 2 for human ordering in creation actually exclude any other kind of human relationships at all – friendship, community or society? There is only marriage on offer. What are we to assume from that? The sexual union of husband and wife indeed offers a metaphor of extraordinary intimacy for expressing the love of Christ for his church and thus for the final uniting of all life in the Love of God. But does this have to be an excluding metaphor rather than a unique expression of a vocation all humanity shares and expresses in different ways?
iii. Marriage, as introduced in Genesis 2, is far more than the union of two individuals. In ancient Hebrew culture it expresses a vocation to community. (10) This is often missed. But can the language of bi-focus express this truth at all? Or is society itself bi-focussed – and if so how?
iv. The theological focus in this creation account is not on a supposed bi-focussed ordering of heaven and earth but on the vocation of humanity made in the Divine Image. Where a bi-focused world is to be found in the New Testament it is more often presumed to be part of the old order overturned by the Gospel (male/female, Jew/Gentile etc. cf Gal 3.28). In any case a faithful Christian understanding of the Divine image in creation will surely be Trinitarian.
v. This whole approach needs a defence against the claim that a bi-focussed ordering of human sexual relating expresses in some intentional way what it means to be made in the Image of God. Is the claim being made that man and woman in married union somehow ‘complete’ the expression of what it means to be made in God’s image? It needs to be shown that God’s image in humanity is understood as expressed through marriage and sexual differentiation in Hebrew or Christian theology. And can this be so without implying sexual differentiation within God – something utterly foreign to the biblical tradition? Augustine and Aquinas follow the majority Christian tradition in finding the Image of God expressed in humanity’s unique capacity to think, reason and discern. If so then marriage, gender and sexuality, though significant in themselves, are not ingredients for use in discussions about divine likeness.(11)
vi. The claim that Genesis 2 reveals God’s pattern for human relating also requires an acceptance of a great deal else that is presumed there about the divine ordering of life. That whole creation narrative comes embedded in the cultural assumptions of an ancient, conservative, patriarchal society. It is told, at least initially, entirely from the male perspective and presumes a world created and ordered entirely around male needs. He is alone. No other creature meets his need. At last the woman is made for him (but not man for the woman). He names her as he has named the creatures a generic not personal name at that). This is what ‘having dominion’ means. At this point of her creation the woman is passive, without choice or voice.
vii. Marriage as found in Genesis 2 is theologically, culturally and relationally a very long way from a Christian understanding of marriage. Overall there is a great deal in this ancient story that Christian teaching challenges as a basis of loving human relating of any kind.
3.1.2. Exploring an ‘including’ reading
The first human being, in the original goodness of life, made in the image of God, is alone. God declares this ‘not good’. This is not a consequence of sin. Nor is it a need that God can fulfil. A hunger and longing for relationship lies at the good heart of being human.
Now in the first creation account God decrees and it happened. In this second creation story, the choice is all with the human being in the search for companionship. God decrees nothing here (except what is not good). Rather he is present as one who serves (cf Jesus Luke 20.27?), creating creature after creature in the search for a suitable helper for Adam. But only Adam, it seems, can recognise who this is. He must choose. When God finally creates from within and out of the human being, the companionship of Eve is recognised and celebrated as pure gift. ‘There is no divine blueprint; there is only what makes glad the heart of each of us’.(12) Moore spells out further the significance of this drama for our context. ‘A companion, in the sense of companionship which is in view in this text, is somebody you actually want to be with and share your life with. An imposed companion would be no companion at all’. (13)
As to the patriarchal setting of the story there are signs of an alternative, subverting voice in the narrative in the way the woman is created out of the side of the man (not head or feet), and that she is created last (hitherto a sign of superiority in the creation narratives). Her description as his ‘ezer’ – helper – also critiques of the narrative’s male centredness for the name carries no sense of subordination. To the contrary it is the same term by which God is known to Israel as one who helps/saves.
Marriage now appears almost as an aside – ‘for this reason’ (eg ‘and while we are on this subject’). For it offers, as the founding expression of human relationship, a primary illustration of the life-fulfilling and life-giving companionship that all humanity is created for. Marriage of man and woman is thus ‘typical’ (Moore), and to be utterly reverenced as that. But what is typical does not rule out the atypical. As we have noted, no other relationships of any kind are acknowledged in this account but we do not draw excluding conclusions from that.
3.1.3. What may be concluded from this?
•Human beings are created with a life searching/life fulfilling longing and need for loving relationship and community.
• Within this world heterosexual love between man and woman is ‘typical’ and accorded special place through marriage. Many who strongly support same-sex partnerships would wish to retain a distinctive place for heterosexual marriage.
•This creation story comes embedded in the cultural assumptions of an ancient patriarchal society marked by male hierarchy and female subordination. A Christian reading of this story therefore requires critical, theological discernment.
• IEs find no grounds here for excluding the possibility of same-sex relationships (that is unless any relationships outside of heterosexual marriage are excluded). Rather, the question is simply not addressed.
3.2. Other Texts
3.2.1. Genesis 18-19 The sin of Sodom
IEs question whether this notorious story has anything directly to say about faithful same-sex relationships. However, its actual concern is very relevant to, and all too often ignored in this debate. This concerns the covenant obligation to honour the stranger in the midst.
What happens in Sodom is in direct contrast to what happened earlier at Abraham’s tent. That hospitality, not homosexuality, is the issue here is made clear by Lot’s protest to those who come demanding access to his guests. He does not say – ‘do not do this because homosexuality is wrong’ but ‘do not do this because they have come under my roof’ (19.8). In Ezekiel 16 the sin of Sodom is ‘pride’ and inhospitality. The message is clear. Hospitality offered leads to blessing. Hospitality rejected leads to destruction.
(But what should be the marks of a Christian reading of this harrowing story, set in a male-centred world in which a binding hierarchy of social obligation requires the honouring of (male) guests above the most basic obligation to protect your own family? In such a world a man will offer his own virgin daughters to distract gang rapists rather than breach this code. Doesn’t this culture reveal unredeemed extremes of violent sexism and patriarchy?)
To welcome an other into home or community is to offer hospitality solely on the basis of common humanity, rather than any condition or judgement based on presumed or actual knowledge of them. The obligation to hospitality therefore confronts the behaviour of any community that excludes others to ensure the maintenance of its own hierarchical, moral or social preoccupations. (14) This has all too often been the experience of homosexuals in the church. Inclusion has too often come at the price of silence or compliance. The challenge lies in an insistence that Christian debate cannot proceed on the basis of a supposed ‘us’ and them’ but on the basis of shared humanity. (15) Furthermore the story makes plain that hospitality is a theological obligation. The refusal to welcome the ‘other’ into the midst is actually an assault on God’s own honour who is present in that story as a guest (cf Jesus – ‘you did it to me’. Matt 25.40).
However, Sodom is not remembered for its appalling treatment of guests. The name of this city has become a byword in history for all that is considered evil, malign and disordered about homosexual desire and behaviour. But is there actually any significance in the fact that homosexual behaviour referred to here? What was being sought was anal rape. Does this have any relation to homosexual orientation? We might note that levels of heterosexual sexual violence and rape remain at appallingly high levels in Western society and in the wider world. The rape of women (and men) is a common weapon of war and a widespread feature of ethnic violence in our times. When used in this way it is a means of utterly humiliating and disgracing the victim. But what heterosexual men would not be utterly offended to find their sexual orientation and relationships judged as evil and disordered on the basis of records of such abusive and violent behaviour? Homosexual men (and women) feel the same about the historic use of the story of Sodom in relation to their own orientation and relating.
3.2.2. Leviticus 18
The question here is, ‘What precisely is condemned here and why?’ We note again the setting of this teaching in a culture in which male role, status and behaviour is the sole, driving concern. Although hard to translate the concern here seems to be men behaving ‘like women’ (ie passive/submissive) in same-sex intercourse. Much more than that is simply not certain.
If so then the focus of condemnation here appears to be same-sex sexual behaviour that is considered to violate the controlling belief in male dominance and superiority, and within which the insertion of the penis into the vagina is a very precise and binding act of male possession. Such behaviour is therefore to be condemned because it threatens the whole created order. This passage belongs in the wider context of Hebrew beliefs about holiness and purity in which certain behaviours were to be resisted if they were believed to symbolically or actually cross boundaries or confuse ‘categories’ that were deemed sacred.
It is at least questionable whether the concern here is with homosexuality at all. It also needs to be established whether this assertive/passive, possession/submission understanding of sexual relating has any relevance to patterns of contemporary homosexual or heterosexual relating today. In fact is this a Christian understanding of sexual relating at all? It is not for Paul who teaches sexual equality in 1 Corinthians 7. Christian relationships are characterised by mutual self-giving not male ownership and possession. ‘What is at stake here is not a supposed divine plan of heterosexuality, but a supposed divine plan for male dominance.’ (16)
3.2.3. Romans 1.18-32 Idolatrous society under judgement
This outspoken critique of a Godless, chaotic culture where any conviction of moral ordering has collapsed may possibly find comparisons within aspects of contemporary Western society. And homosexual behaviour can and does feature in the varied, promiscuous mix that can characterise such lifestyles.
In summary Paul here describes people who:
i. have wilfully and knowingly turned from the Creator to idolatrous living.
ii. have in consequence been ‘given over’ by God as judgement. This seems to result in the removal of any restraining grace or moral sensibility upon human desire and behaviour.
iii. are therefore acting out of uncontrolled, burning, inflamed, unbridled lust, and
iv. are acting contrary to ‘nature’. Specifically they have deliberately exchanged their ‘natural’ sexual orientation for an ‘unnatural’ one.
What is clear in this passage is that it is not homosexual behaviour that Paul condemns. Homosexual behaviour described here is something, among many vices, that Gentile culture has been ‘given over to’ by God. The desire itself is one expression of divine judgement for turning away from God to idolatrous living. If this is so then the decision to ‘exchange’ passions is presumably itself compelled by God. There is no choice. This behaviour is out of human control. It is helpless. Those under judgement in this way are presumably easy to identify by lifestyles that include a helpless, burning, unredeemable addiction to indulging sex in any shape or form. Perhaps that is why Paul does not describe homosexuality as a sin. He speaks of it in terms of ‘shame’.
Plainly this passage can only be applied to other social and relationship contexts with great care.
Firstly, it must be asked how Christians are to read this in the light of contemporary understanding of homosexual orientation?
Secondly, is this really that? There are certainly parts of gay subculture that are highly promiscuous but in what way do we claim to recognise these verses as a familiar description of typical monogamous, homosexual behaviour in the world today? It plainly isn’t.
Thirdly, we simply do not know if Paul had any comparable experience of the faithful, covenanted, same-sex relationships under discussion here. Since that claim involves making very specific comparison between two widely differing cultures and contexts there must at least be room for doubt.
Finally, if comparisons are not be deeply offensive we need to be very clear in what way at all this passage applies to Christians today who find themselves homosexual by ‘nature'(17); who confess Christ as Lord, repent of their sins and renounce evil; who are faithful and chaste in their relationships; and who seek blessing upon their same-sex partnership and their shared discipleship in the way of Christ.
3.2.4. 1Cor 6.1-11 Christian disputes
This passage is concerned with Christian behaviour in the community of the baptised. Some have been pursuing disputes through the secular courts. Paul denounces this. He recalls them to the reality of their baptism, stressing the distinctiveness of Christian behaviour in society by listing vices that can never be found among inheritors of the kingdom. All are examples of behaviour that is harmful, destructive or abusive of others. Malakos and arsenokoites are mentioned among them (Paul clearly has Leviticus 18 in mind). The two words may be paired here though no other vices are paired in this list. We have already questioned whether the pattern of sexual relating suggested by these words and their cultural context – ancient Hebrew or Greek/Roman – in any way approximates to contemporary expressions of same-sex partnership. Christian relationships are based on mutuality, love and sacrifice.
Those who find no comparison more naturally read these verses as calling the whole community to gospel standards in their relationships with each other.
3.2.5. 1Cor 7.27-38 Sexual abstinence
Those who believe scripture forbids homosexual sexual relationship of any kind urge celibacy as the Christian alternative on offer. I briefly consider Paul’s teaching on sexual abstinence in the light of this passage. The priority for all relationships in the New Testament is that they are lived in the light of the coming Kingdom.
The forsaking of marriage and commitment to sexual abstinence here is for a specific reason. This is ‘an emergency measure enabling the Christians to concentrate on God, who will very soon bring the world to an end’ (18) . After all what long-term arrangements of any kind are appropriate when you are close to the consummation of the cosmos? Paul therefore urges the Corinthian church to choose celibacy as he has (vs7).
Celibate life here is thus envisaged as short term. The Lord is near. Nowhere is the concept of life long abstinence addressed at all.
Crucially, Paul recognises this is not possible for everyone. There is no judgment on those who recognise their desires are too strong to manage. On the contrary, ‘It is better to marry than burn’. (vs7-9) It is no failure, sin or weakness to need to express sexual desire. This is part of what it means to be human and a very particular way in which human companionship is expressed and sustained.
The decision regarding celibacy/abstinence or marriage is left to Christians themselves. Paul is wholly merciful, permission-giving and non-judgmental in this provision. To live within sexually expressed committed relationship is ‘typical’ in creation. It is a gift of God. It would therefore be a contradiction to speak as if this desire, unlike many others, can be controlled and denied expression by simple choice or act of will.
Marriage or abstinence is chosen by those who have ‘so decided in their own heart’ (v37). It is a personal choice. It is not imposed. There is no scriptural warrant for a community imposing celibacy upon any of its members. It is a gift that can only be freely chosen by those to who find the grace and resources to do so.
What basis is found here for requiring lives of complete sexual abstinence of those who are homosexual in orientation? Is it better for them to burn than to marry? Nowhere is celibacy applied as a ‘remedy’ for what is understood to be dis-ordered sexual desire.
We may wonder why Paul does not anywhere address the relational and sexual needs of those in the community for whom heterosexual marriage is not the option. Once again it is reasonable to suggest the possibility that this is an expression of committed relationship that Paul knew nothing of and that is why he does not directly address them in his teaching.
Finally, the scriptures plainly condemn the disordered expression of sexual desire. Like all other parts of life sexual behaviour and expression needs consecration and discipline. There is need, in any age, for abstinence from sexual behaviour that is self evidently destructive of others. This remains a tragic expression of disordered humanity but a discussion that belongs in another context.
3.2.6. The tests of time and experience
There is one other way of responding to the challenges same-sex relationships present and it is taught by Jesus. He teaches tests of discernment that are specifically not based on prior convictions about what is permitted or forbidden. One is the test of ‘fruitfulness’. ‘By their fruits you shall recognise them … A good tree cannot bear bad fruit’. (Matt 7.16-18). Since fruit needs time to grow and reveal its quality this must be a longer term strategy for discernment. And as fruit requires tending and care this process requires a trusting, patient and non-anxious inclusion. Another example of this is found when the disciples try to stop someone ministering in the name of Jesus because ‘he is not one of us’. Jesus contradicts them. ‘Whoever is not against us is for us’ (Mark 9.38-40). The wisdom of Gamaliel may also be invoked here – ‘if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them… you may even be found fighting against God!’ (Acts 5.34). So in the face of a situation whose gift (or threat?) is not immediately apparent the Christian community is offered ways of proceeding that might be called Godly pragmatism.
Another New Testament example is found in the story of Peter at Joppa. This is the moment the first believers turned from being an excluding Jewish sect to an including church for the world. In relating his response to his dream and subsequent visit, as a Jew, to the (forbidden/unclean) house of a Gentile, Peter bases his defense entirely on the evidence of what he saw and experienced. The community of Jerusalem also accept his testimony on those terms (Acts 11:4-&8). This meant that strictly in terms of what they believed the Hebrew scriptures to teach on exclusion and separation they found themselves disobeying scripture to obey God!
IEs find here a valid, scripturally commended source of discernment – one that Jesus himself taught and used. It is the evidence of people’s lives, over time and with the support and care that all growing needs.
3.2.7. The Jesus community
Richard Burridge (19) notes the persistent habit of excluding Jesus himself from studies of Christian ethics. When this happens the wisdom and moral sayings in the gospels are lifted from the very stories and deeds of Jesus that give them their context. Even the Evangelical tradition has been guilty of this. He notes, by contrast, that in Jewish belief, ‘a teacher’s actions were as important as his words. Not just illustration. The life itself was Torah. To imitate the master is a way of knowing Torah and thus becomes an imitation of God’. (20)
Burridge insists that a Christian approach to ethical questions must be centred on Jesus’s life and will always be asking, ‘What kind of community and events were the outcome of his words and deeds?’ The answer is one marked by unexpected welcome, healing and scandalous inclusion. ‘In seeking to follow Jesus, we are called not merely to obey his ethical ‘strenuous commands’ in the pursuit of holiness but also to imitate his deeds and his words, which call his hearers to merciful and loving acceptance of everyone, including and especially those whom some consider to be sinners, without preconditions.’ (21)
3.2.8 In the light of this – a brief summary
a. Those few texts that have traditionally been presumed to establish a clear biblical ‘mind’ on this subject need more careful interpretation within the actual concerns of their own cultural context. When this is done their relevance to the contemporary debate is significantly called into question. IEs believe that in this area of human living and relating we have not read or taught scripture well.
b. Is this that? IEs are not persuaded that those scriptures that make reference to homosexual activity are describing contemporary expressions of faithful same-sex relationships. Indeed the comparison can be deeply offensive. It is questionable whether the contemporary expression of faithful same-sex relationships is known in the Bible at all.
c. Where the Bible does not directly address the context of any contemporary social debate we must seek what may be called the ‘trajectory of scripture’.
d. The test of experience and fruitfulness. IEs have been positively challenged and enriched in their beliefs in this debate by fellow Christians who are homosexual in orientation and (may also be) living in faithful same-sex relationships. They are grateful for this.
Section 4: Convictions, challenges, and ways ahead
4.1. Proportion and perspective?
This is a subject about which the Bible actually says so little. But this appears to be in inverse proportion to the sheer quantity and length of time devoted to debating it. Perhaps we should be asking why? As Richard Burridge notes, “It is puzzling why being against homosexuality, about which Jesus and the gospels have nothing to say and Paul has only … passing references alongside many other sins equally common to heterosexuals, should have become the acid test of what it means to be truly ‘biblical’ in a number of quarters over recent years.” (22)
The preoccupation is evident on all sides of the debate as well as in society as a whole. (23)
‘The important thing is not whether I am single or married, gay or straight, it is whether I am living in the expectation of God’s coming Kingdom’. Donald Goergen
I have described heterosexual as what is ‘typical’ in human creation. And in the biblical and Christian tradition, marriage between man and woman is the primary relationship at the heart of a stable society. It is ‘a way of life that all should honour’. But those seeking to defend this vulnerable and exposed institution need also to recognise that marriage has always been an evolving institution, adapting itself through history (though often very slowly) in response to changing patterns within society. This is the task once again and one criticism of the recent Church of England report is that it paid insufficient attention to how this traditional institution relates to contemporary expressions of social and sexual relating. (24)
Marriage, in scripture, as in all ancient societies, is for community creating and building. That contemporary readers see no further than two individuals coming together in the Genesis story reveals how individualised our understanding has become. The vocation to community takes us beyond romantic and privatised ideas of love. It also takes us beyond the language of ‘rights’ and ‘equality’ that has been driving the argument for extending ‘marriage’ to same sex couples. The real issue is an anxious inability to cope with ‘difference’. When difference is defended it is too easily denounced as excluding and discriminatory.
What is ‘typical’ does not exclude what is atypical. This is an important conviction. For what is needed are communities that unambiguously affirm and support marriage as the union of man and woman without excluding or devaluing the other faithful ways in which humanity honours companionship and belonging. They are not in competition. Indeed there is an essential mutuality to this vision. Marriage cannot thrive in isolation. It has always needed a supportive community of rich committed friendship around it.
4.3. Covenant and Friendship
A primary way of expressing human commitments in the Bible is through covenant. This is defined as ‘an exclusive relationship between two parties based on promise and marked by faithfulness, steadfastness, patience and forgiveness.’ (25) These covenants can take many forms. But the significance of covenant-making between people lies in their purpose. Covenanted life is to reflect the life and character of God who makes covenant with his creation.
Part of the gift of this debate is that it is reminding the church that human beings need a wider range of relationships in community than just the model of marriage. We need to recovery the gift of friendship. Atkinson notes that friendship is very often the distinctive quality in homosexual relationships. A recent survey among single people reveals a widespread feeling of being marginalized in the church. Christian teaching on relationships is all too often focused on marriage alone.(26) So there is something timely about the rediscovery ‘of a long Christian tradition of deep and covenanted friendships between people of the same sex and of the opposite sex’.(27) These were apparently well known in other periods of history and included public commitment to sworn friendship of men to men and women to women. Liturgies for such covenants show marked similarities to marriage vows and prayers. Their presence illustrates the significance of consenting, committed relationships alongside marriage in human community. Biblical covenant is a way of seeking holiness of life though faithful relationships.
4.4. Same-sex relationships
For a significant minority of men and women in society what is ‘not good’ for them is the absence of the love of a partner of the same sex. Marriage may not be an option but the need for companionship is the same. IEs support those couples who seek to make public their commitment to each other through Civil Partnership. They are to be supported in their calling to the same standards of holiness, faithfulness and love as heterosexual couples. IEs are not persuaded that this contemporary phenomenon of faithful, committed same-sex relationships is one that was known to writers of the Old and New Testaments.
For IEs this is a subject on which Christians may respectfully differ.
4.5. Hospitable, non-anxious and healing
This debate needs to guard a strong pastoral perspective. When the ‘good’ search for love, belonging and intimacy is happening in a society without moral compass, and where familiar boundaries for human relating have all but collapsed, it will often be a place of great wounding, hurt and bewilderment. The journey towards intimacy of any kind may be very difficult one. ‘When it comes to the place of our wounded sexuality, healing cannot start from the place of passion. The search must be for other moments … assured of another’s steady love …. And where the wounding is too deep, we have to be loyal to these other ways, and when we are, just as much love is made.’ (28)
In such a context to start at the place of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is also unhelpful. The response of Jesus in the place of human brokenness was to call for mercy not sacrifice. The priority is healing not ‘principles’. In a society so obsessively preoccupied with sex, one of the gifts a Christian community can offer is precisely in being a place where sex is not compulsory, where other gifts of friendship and love are possible and where the necessary boundaries of trust can be repaired and built up. The choice (or call) to live celibate for whatever reasons will be understood and reverenced here too.
4.6. ‘Hold fast to that which is good’. (1Thess 5.21)
An honourable principle in Christian debate is to engage with the best of your opponents case. This is too often neglected in the present context. There is much to admire, respect and learn from the quality of many same-sex relationships. Even where we disagree this debate should proceed in a spirit of gratitude towards any in society who take their relationships seriously enough to consider to making loving, covenant commitment to one another.
Christian tradition has struggled throughout its history to unambiguously celebrate the gift of sexual love. It has more often sounded anxious and responded with attempts at control. We lack a word – somewhere between chaste and promiscuous – which expresses a celebratory, faithful, grateful way of indwelling this demanding and holy vocation and to be human and sexual.
‘God has created you a sexual being…
God is at the heart of your striving, still creating you,
always pursuing, luring, drawing, never letting go…
Whatever your unique mix and measure of sexuality, be very glad:
to be a human sexual is fundamental and ordinary and exceptional…’ (29)
Footnotes and sources
1. No evangelical makes this journey lightly. It is exploratory, tentative and often deeply unsettling. We have not been here before. Long held convictions are being challenged. In the preparation of this paper I gratefully acknowledge the help of Dr Roger Hurding, a friend and wise, pastoral theologian who has devoted much time and thought to this subject. But in the midst of a debate with an apparently infinite capacity for hurt, division and misunderstanding, responsibility for the views expressed in this paper must be mine alone.
2. from The Virginia Report (Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission) cited in The Anglican Communion and Homosexuality ed Philip Groves, (SPCK, 2008), p84
3. It is not always understood by those watching from outside, but the Evangelical tradition has always contained a significant spectrum of beliefs – and perhaps wider than it likes to admit to itself. Hence the regular internal debate about what constitutes evangelical ‘identity’.
7. A Slippery Slope – the ordination of women and homosexual practice – a case study in Biblical interpretation. (Grove Biblical Studies No16), p23-4. I should note that both Wright and France hold conserving positions on this subject.
14 There are parallels here with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). As the man in need is naked and ‘on the point of death’ (lit) there is no further way of identifying him before offering help and those who passed by at a distance did so rather than risk rendering themselves ritually unclean (ie by touching a non-Jew or dead body). A compassionless hierarchy of religious self preservation over care of fellow humanity is what is condemned here by Jesus.
15 Writing as a gay Christian in the church, James Allison makes the same point. ‘We are a “they”. Dangerous people whose most notable characteristic is not a shared humanity, but a tendency to commit acts considered to be gravely, objectively disordered. Typically our inclusion within the structure of church life comes at a very high price: that of agreeing not to speak honestly.’ Faith beyond Resentment (DLT 2001), p45.
23 When the liberal website Thinking Anglicans recently posted news of a conference supporting Women Bishops there were calls for the day to be boycotted on the grounds that the evangelical group hosting it, Fulcrum, were against same-sex relationships and thus homophobic.
25 David Atkinson in Other voices, other worlds ed. Terry Brown (DLT 2006), p304
27 Atkinson, p305 . See also Peter Atkinson, Friendship and the Body of Christ (London: SPCK, 2005) and Alan Bray, The Friend, (University of Chicago Press, 2007).
28&29 from Jim Cotter, Prayer at Night (Cairns 1986) p76
David Runcorn June 2013