‘Is the present crisis in Christian denominations over homosexuality really about sex?’ asks theologian, Timothy Luke Johnson. He thinks not. ‘If it were, there would be no particular reason why homosexuals should be singled out for attention; there is more than enough sexual disorder among heterosexuals to fuel moral outrage. The church could devote its energies to resisting the widespread commodification of sex in our culture, the exploitation of women and children caught in a vast web of international prostitution and pornography, [and] the many ways that straight males enable such distorted and diseased forms of sexuality. Instead, the relatively small set of same-sex unions gets singled out for moral condemnation, while the vast pandemic of sexual disorder goes ignored.’ (1)
So if it is not about sex what it is about? ‘In my view’, he says, ‘this scapegoating of homosexuality has less to do with sex than with perceived threats to the authority of Scripture and the Church’.
I think he is right – as he is to name ‘straight males’ as the key players at the centre of these concerns. In the Church of England at least, any discussion about these ‘perceived threats’ needs to include male power and authority. I observe that to engage with the subject of same-sex relationships within the conservative evangelical tradition is to find yourself find yourself talking almost exclusively to men. The stories and relationships of women, along with their theological contributions, are virtually ignored. But that needs another blog (along with a robust dose of courage and a stiff drink!).
I note that Johnson identifies the ‘perceived threats’ as specifically around the authority of scripture, rather scripture itself. I want to explore the implications of that.
A familiar claim by conservative evangelical voices opposed to the current proposals to fully welcome and bless same-sex couples is that the church is ‘departing from Scripture’. The CEEC website states the proposals ‘deny the authority of Scripture’ (my stress). The recent GAFCON statement laments ‘repeated departures from the authority of God’s Word’ (my stress) by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church of England. Those supporting their position on same-sex relationships are described (by contrast) as being ‘committed to the truthfulness, clarity, sufficiency and authority of Scripture’. All Christians know the challenging but potentially enlightening experience of debating conflicting views on particular texts or issues of faith with each other. Evangelicals have always done that. But the claim here is altogether more serious. That when others hold a belief about an issue in scripture that you totally disagree with, they must be rejecting the authority of the Bible as a whole. (2)
Is there any evidence for this in our present context? The Church of England has not changed its creeds or canons. It still publicly requires of its ministers that they ‘have affirmed and declared their belief in the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness’. At their consecration Bishops are still being asked: ‘Are you persuaded that the holy Scriptures contain sufficiently all doctrine required of necessity for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ? And are you determined out of the same holy Scriptures to instruct the people committed to your charge, and to teach or maintain nothing as required of necessity to eternal salvation, but that which you shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the same?’
In a lecture given some years ago entitled ‘How can the Bible be authoritative?’ Tom Wright challenged theway his own tradition uses the word authority. ‘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) are the ones who know and believe what the Bible is saying. And, though there is more than a grain of truth in such claims, they are by no means the whole truth, and to imagine that they are is to move from theology to ideology. If we are not careful, the phrase “authority of scripture” can, by such routes, come to mean simply ‘the authority of [my corner of] the evangelical tradition’. We have tended to let the word ‘authority’ be the fixed point and have adjusted ‘scripture’ to meet it, instead of the other way round. (3)
There has always been an anxiety about authority within the evangelical tradition. This is understandable. So much is at stake. It is reminiscent of the Puritan struggles over the Assurance of Salvation. Assurance was extolled so highly as the defining gift of grace they were constantly anxious as to whether they had really received it. The more you stress the absolute authority of the bible, the higher the concerns will be over the ‘right’ interpretation, the greater the likelihood of disagreement, and the struggle to cope when others, manifestly as committed as you to the authority of scripture, hear the texts pointing in a very different direction.
What kind of authority is it? We need to be clear what we mean. What does submission and obedience to scripture actually require of us?
In his commentary on Genesis, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers an interesting perspective on the relationship of the believer to the scriptures. He notes that while there are 613 commands in the Torah, ancient Hebrew had no word for ‘obey’. Modern Hebrew had to create a word for outright obedience. The Hebrew words shema and lishmoa express a call to hear, listen, attend, understand.
Sacks therefore suggests that God seeks from us ‘a greater virtue than obedience’ (4). He seeks our responsibility. We are to read and interpret and follow, responsibly.
English translations miss this by more often translating those words ‘obey’ (ironically a word that has its roots in the anglo-french audīre – ‘to hear’).
Rather than an unquestioning submission to commands, honouring the authority of scripture requires a careful hearing, listening and attentiveness to the texts. In involves questioning and dialogue with the text and with each other. It is a work of continuing, communal discernment.
This is modelled within scripture itself. There is an internal dialogue going on. For example, the way the wisdom tradition, like Job, critiques and poses questions to the prevailing consequential theology of the authoritative Deuteronomic world (do good and you will be flourish, do bad and you will suffer). Or the way Samuel, Kings and Chronicles offer contrasting interpretations of the same key events and figures in Israel’s history. Or the two quite contrasting accounts of creation, simply offered side by side, in the beginning.
And whenever the NT quotes or alludes to OT texts they change them, conceptually or literally, in nearly every case. Jesus reading and preaching from Isaiah at Nazareth is a striking example of this (Lk 4.14-30).
Now, as then, to live under the authority of God’s Word is to find ourselves caught up in a continuing, dynamic, unfolding revelation. In ‘Having words with God – the Bible as conversation’, Karl Allen Kuhn writes, ‘Scripture itself provides no indication that the dynamic nature of God’s instruction is suddenly to cease. To insist, as some do, that all of the specific injunctions of the New Testament concerning particular behaviours must stand for all time is to assign to biblical instruction a role that it has never before performed (my emphasis).’ (5)
We have been holding this conversation for some time actually. We don’t call divorced and remarried people adulterers and stone them. We do not expect women to be silent in church, only learn theology at home from their (short haired) husbands. They are leaders with men in the church. We give blood, take out bank loans or mortgages and freely choose what we eat and drink. We use artificial contraception and practice family planning. We do not insist that rapists marry their victims. Disabled people are not excluded from worship or ministry altogether. We read the scriptures in our own language, in multiple translations.
In all this we have already moved very significantly beyond the worlds and contexts found in the Word once given, and what the Bible authoritatively ‘says’ on certain issues, without ever clearly revoking those commands.
On what principles have we done this? That the bible is now irrelevant or even wrong? Have we simply sold out to the cultural mores of the day? Or is the truth that the revelation of God to humanity is always communicated in particular times, and places and through particular people and stories. We, in our turn, are to ‘listen’ and ‘hear’ and apply what we discern this calling us to.
In the process of interpretation we have allowed the emerging insights from science, biology and other disciplines to inform our approach to ancient texts, as we engage with the changing world around us and the questions it raises. This is what lay behind the Archbishop’s declaration that led directly to the Living in Love and Faith project in the Church of England (6). ‘We need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church. This must be founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology; it must be based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual. (7)
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, contraception, divorce and remarriage, and women in society and the Church. The process is commonly marked by moves from text-based arguments to other ways of reaching bible convictions on issues and thus to a change of conviction about what the Bible actually teaches on particular issues, without compromising our high view of scripture.
So here we are, with bibles open, in critical conversation – hearing, attending, discerning. Reading the scriptures afresh in and for this generation of ours. This is what it means to be reading, interpreting and obeying the word responsibly.
Our present divisions are not over whether the bible is our supreme guide and authority or not. We are agreed on that. Our divisions are over the interpretation of the ancient texts, under the guiding and compelling of the Spirit, to inform our understanding of human sexuality and relationships in our time.
If Johnson is right, a focus on the authority of scripture may actually be preventing the church from engaging the subject of sex and sexuality with the full pastoral and biblical imagination it so urgently needs.
Finally, it follow, that those of us who call ourselves ‘open’ or ‘affirming’ evangelicals do not believe sexuality is an issue over which to divide. The authority of scripture constrains us. To separate over this and no other issue is without precedent and founds our ecclesiology on sex. This has no mandate in the bible, the historic creeds or councils of the faith.
Scripture teaches that unity among Christians is faithful witness to Jesus. Under that authority we are committed to walking with, not apart from, those we disagree with. We believe expressions of same-sex relationships to be supported by scripture whilst respecting the integrity of those who hold other views from the same texts.
In this we are being biblical and orthodox.
1. Homosexuality and the church. https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/homosexuality-church-0
2. https://declaration.ceec.info and https://www.gafcon.org/news/gafcon-iv-the-kigali-commitment
3. Genesis, the Book of Beginnings. OUP. p45.
4. Vox Evangelica 21 1991. 7-32.
5. Fortress Press. 2008. p89.