This is the text of a presentation I have given to several zoom events to mark the publication of my new book Love means Love – same sex relationships and the Bible (SPCK).
You can find more information about the book here on these web pages.
But let me start with a story.
Four hundred years ago this year – on the 6th September 1620 – a boat called Mayflower set sail from Plymouth for America. Among the passengers were Puritan pilgrims seeking a new world after suffering sustained persecution by government and church in England. One group travelled from the Netherlands to join the ship – where they were already living in exile. Before they left, their pastor, John Robinson, preached these words to them:
‘I charge you before God … that you follow me no further than you have seen me follow the Lord Jesus Christ. If God reveals anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it, for I am persuaded the Lord has more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.’ (1)
Robinson calls that vulnerable community to be open and trusting in the face of the unknown.
Christian faith is always forward-looking.
There is always more to come.
His words about the scriptures are often quoted.
‘Breaking forth’ suggests a powerful, dynamic energy at work in the world that cannot be confined or hemmed in.
And there is always ‘Yet more … truth’ to hear and receive from God’s word – it is inexhaustible. There is always newness from God being revealed out of what is already given.
We might hear this as an encouragement to faith in the acute vulnerabilities of our own times. We too are on an unknown journey. We too are seeking a new world out of all this.
Robinson would urge that our relationship to the scriptures is to be: open, trusting and forward-looking, for in every time and place yet more truth will be breaking forth to guide the people of God in the challenges and questions they are facing.
Faith and understanding are always known in a becoming.
Professor Oliver O’Donovan is, in our own day, a respected teacher of moral and pastoral theology. He shares Robinson’s openness – but puts the challenge more boldly:
‘We have to be alert to the possibility of [faith and] doctrine being renewed out of scripture in a way that takes the church by surprise.’ (2)
Well one surprise is where that statement is found. It is in a book about the bible, marriage and relationships written by a group of conservative theologians. But O’Donovan is clear that the presence of faithful, loving, committed Christians, who happen to be gay, is forcing us to ask very new questions – questions the bible does not directly address.
So we are embarking on a new journey.
But is there really anything new in this idea?
Didn’t an air of surprise and astonishment surround the ministry of Jesus? Wherever he went his words and actions awakened wonder, shock, joy and scandal in equal measure.
The most unsettling surprise was who was welcome in his new community. Familiar social, moral and religious boundaries were simply dismantled.
Working this out was not easy then – and it still isn’t now. The theological and cultural divisions between Jewish and Gentile believers, for example, run like an unresolved fault line through the whole New Testament era.
This was their perhaps their equivalent of our conflicts over sexuality.
In every age, the church of Christ, will always be working out the shock and mystery of God’s unfolding ways. To embrace the challenges and receive the newness this brings requires the willingness to be surprised by God.
‘Yet more’, ‘breaking forth’, ‘surprise’ ….
I wonder how this sounds to you and your own relationship with the Bible?
Doesn’t this make the bible sound incomplete, unfinished?
Well yes and no.
You see, before we can ask what the bible teaches on any subject we need to first ask how it teaches and guides. What kind of revelation it is?
One summary about the bible from my own tradition runs like this:
‘Anglicans affirm the sovereign authority of the Holy Scriptures through which God by the Spirit communicates his word in the Church … the Scriptures must be translated, read and their meaning grasped, through a continuing process of interpretation …’ (3)
Here we have it then. Something is given by God. It is authoritative and holy – but receiving, understanding and applying it to our lives, is a continuing task of interpretation for each, successive generation ….
Robinson was urging this.
O’Donovan warns us we may be surprised to find where this might lead.
How might this help us engage with the most conflicted subject in the church today?
Is the growing support for same-sex relationships simply an abandoning of what the Bible teaches, as some fear?
Or are we encountering examples of new understanding breaking forth that require us to re-examine how we have been reading and interpreting the word once given?
To describe the Bible as our Supreme Authority can easily give the impression that what we have is a complete, unambiguous revelation from God, to be simply read off the page and obeyed.
Nothing can be accepted that goes beyond what is found taught there. In fact, nothing is ever actually new. There is only the task of re-newing or re-discovering what was always in the text but we mis-laid or disobeyed it.
This approach often comes with the belief that the Bible speaks with one voice and that one core meaning and teaching runs through it all. Seeking the will of God on any issue then is simply a matter of reading the relevant scriptures and obeying them.
What is missed here is how scripture is much more of a dialogue than a monologue.
Instead of being a mono-messaged, prescriptive text, truth is worked out in conversation – and even argument. In the Bible God is constantly in conversation with his people and they with Him. The Bible texts and writers are also in dialogue with each other.
For example, with very few exceptions, the New Testament writers (and Jesus himself) never quote or allude to Old Testament texts without adapting or modifying them – literally and/or theologically.
A continual, sacred dialogue is always going within the scriptures. New questions are asked as new situations faced.
I enjoy the cartoon of Jesus at the last supper saying to his disciples – ‘now listen carefully. I don’t want to end up with four versions of this.’
The fact that there are four gospels accounts (and extended discussions by letters) means that even Jesus’s own ministry and teaching is not captured in one clear text in the New Testament.
One example of the Bible in dialogue with itself is found in the teaching around the issues of racial separation, purity, intermarriage and holiness. There are those disturbing passages where God commands his people to ethnically cleanse the land of foreigners (Deut 7 & 20, Josh 11.16ff). But the people Moses had led out of Egypt included a mixture of races (Ex 12.38). Moses himself was married to a Midianite woman. Much later, when Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem from exile, he found the surviving remnant there had intermarried and he commanded foreign wives be sent away – ‘thus I cleansed them from everything foreign’, he wrote. But the prophet Isaiah teaches inclusion and acceptance, prophesying that ‘foreigners joined to the Lord … will be given a name “better than sons and daughters”’ (56.3&6-8). Meanwhile the Book of Ruth, named after a Moabite woman, not only celebrates a mixed-race marriage but Ruth, the outsider, becomes the great-grandmother of King David.
This means that discerning what ‘the Bible says’ on purity and inclusion involves careful listening to a variety of contexts and to the way parts of the Bible speak to, challenge and even appear to contradict each other. Nowhere are these tensions resolved and gathered into one message.
The transforming but controversial turning point in the life of the early church came when those first Jewish followers began to recognise former gentile ‘outsiders’ as fellow believers. Though this did not happen in one single place and time, it is remembered through one particular story. Peter had a dream – he is offered unclean animals to eat. He refuses but God tells him not to call anything he has made unclean. When he wakes he finds himself invited to the home of an ‘unclean’ Gentile. While he is there he watches as the Holy Spirit fills those outsiders as it had once filled him. To this we trace how a Jewish sect became a global church.
Though this story has nothing to do with sexuality it is relevant to our context for two reasons.
It tells how the first Jewish churches came to include those who had historically been excluded as unclean according to the scriptures.
But for this to happen, Peter and his friends had to disobey [their understanding of] their own scriptures. So the movement is not those outsiders becoming ritually ‘clean’ and joining the Jewish church, rather the Jewish believers made themselves unclean by moving beyond the familiar holiness code of their own faith and entering the world of a faithful gentile.
Through all this they were acting under the compelling of the Spirit. The hard work of faithful biblical reflection and study on what was going on followed on after.
Some years ago a book was published called ‘Beyond the Bible – moving from scripture to theology’. With such a title you might assume that the author was from the more progressive wing of the church. In fact, I. Howard Marshall is a highly revered evangelical theologian. He argued that obedient faith always requires the willingness to go beyond the Bible text. He admits there are risks involved in this. But he is clear which risk he thinks is the greater. It is that of being misled by only reading the Bible in a first century time warp (and earlier) and refusing to go beyond the letter of Scripture.
‘We must be aware of the danger of failing to understand what God is saying to his people today and muzzling his voice.’ (2004:78)
But we know this actually.
Down through history the church, with its Bible open, has struggled with and then accepted (with varying degrees of graciousness and critical intelligence) the emerging insights of cosmology, evolution, biology, social sciences, medical research and much else. This has consistently required reconsideration of what kind of truth the Bible actually is, the nature of its authority and how it speaks into the fresh challenges and experiences each generation encounters.
This process has not been without attempts to stay in biblical bubbles.
The Catholic church condemned Galileo as a heretic for contradicting scripture by asserting the earth and planets moved round the sun.
Another example is the Victorian naturalist Philip Gosse – friend of Charles Darwin and a deeply committed Christian. Despite the evidence of his own eyes as a biologist and geologist he refused to accept creation was the outcome of evolutionary processes. He believed the Bible taught that God made the world complete, in a moment, but with all the appearance of age – such as rock strata, tree rings and even a navel for Adam.
In fact, a dialogical approach has always been the way the church, at its best, has sought a faithful and discerning reading of scripture. Evangelical history, for example, reveals a tradition uncompromisingly committed to the Bible. But, though often fiercely reactive at first, it has been willing to revise, reverse, accept and include new understandings of social and ethical issues it previously opposed on the grounds of scripture. The list would include slavery, racism, usury, divorce and remarriage, the death penalty, contraception and the place of women in society and the church.
The unsettling process of reading, re-interpreting, repenting of, and revising even long unquestioned Biblical convictions under the compelling of the Spirit and in the light of contemporary questions, is not a task we are unfamiliar with – nor unwilling to undertake. Indeed our own understanding of scripture requires it.
Church history teaches us there is always yet more to break forth from what is given.
The dialogical reading of the scriptures offers us a way of approaching the Bible for wisdom and guidance on issues that the bible
a) originally addresses in more than one way and in very different contexts,
b) does not directly address at all,
c) would not even recognise or understand, within its own ancient world, but which we are facing today.
The relationship of the church to scripture has been likened to participation in a five-act play (4). The first four acts are Creation, Fall, Israel and Jesus. The first scene of act five is the New Testament. But the continuing life of the church in act five is not simply a verbatim copy or repetition of that first scene. Rather it offers a dynamic improvisation. As every actor and musician knows, to improvise faithfully requires a deep, obedient and sustained immersion in what has gone before. No one is making anything up.
This is living faithfully in Robinson’s ‘yet more’ and O’Donovan’s surprise at what is now breaking forth.
I think this speaks very directly into our discussions about sexuality.
There is no doubt the church’s continued inability to move forward on this subject is doing great damage to Christian witness and to the place of the Bible itself in the life of believers and others.
Too often in debates about sexuality the bible has more been read as teaching laid down once for all. Though utterly faithful and sincere this can be mistaken and a narrowing of the revelation that it is – rather than a guiding revelation that breaks forth, surprises and leads us into the new.
I wrote Love means Love because I was aware of a significant and growing group of people in the church – and perhaps beyond.
They are believers for whom the Bible is central to faith and understanding. But they are struggling with, or can simply no longer accept, the traditional teaching on same-sex relationships. The reasons vary. Typically, many have family, friends or work colleagues who are gay. They are unable to match the people they know, love and respect with the Bible texts and traditional Christian teaching and stereotypes, that only condemn and exclude. Some are themselves gay. They feel guilty for questioning the Bible at all. Without being offered any other way of approaching holy scripture, this can and does result in a steady loss of confidence in the Bible as a source of truth, guidance and wisdom.
Perhaps some of you can identify with that?
Love means Love offers a way of reading the Bible, in integrity and obedience, without bypassing or fudging the ‘awkward’ texts – but in a way that speaks welcome and love instead of condemnation. Even if some continue to disagree – and for me these include close friends, I hope they can recognise the integrity of fellow believers who takes their Bibles very seriously – as we recognise they do.
Love means Love is being published just as the Church of England is about to embark on something called Living in Love and Faith – though the launch has now been postponed (5). It is designed as a resource for local churches to help them explore the issue of human sexuality and same-sex relationships. I have seen the project material and I think it is going to really help our understanding in fresh ways. When it finally comes out may I strongly encourage you to engage with it within your groups and communities? And I hope Love means Love will make a contribution to that discussion.
So here we find ourselves ….
We are exploring new patterns of relating and belonging together in Christ.
We have not been here before.
I believe this is one of God’s ‘yet more’ moments.
Something new is ‘breaking forth’.
We need to be willing to be surprised by God.
Wherever this finds you, can I encourage you to be part of a journey towards a new and richer community of welcome, blessing and inclusion.
1. For some further background see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Robinson_(pastor)
2. Noble, A, Whittle, S.K., Johnson, P.S. (eds), Marriage, Family and Relationships: Biblical, Doctrinal and Contemporary Perspectives, Chapter 12, One man, one woman: The Christian doctrine of marriage. Apollos, London, 2017.
3. The Virginia Report (Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission) cited in The Anglican Communion and Homosexuality ed Philip Groves. SPCK, London. 2008. p84.
4. N T Wright How can the Bible be authoritative? Vox Evangelica 21 (1991). Sam Wells develops this idea further in Improvisation – the drama of Christian ethics. Baker, 2018. Chap 3: Narrative as drama.
5. Living in Love and Faith. https://www.churchofengland.org/LLF