In October 2018 a group of Bishops sent an open letter (1) to the Coordinating Group for the Living in Love and Faith project (2) expressing concerns about possible changes to the church’s understanding of marriage and same-sex relationships.
This article was one of three published responses to a letter on a website called ViaMedia. I gratefully acknowledge the contributions made by Bishops David Atkinson and David Gillett (3). I also gladly support all they both affirm in their responses to the Bishop’s letter.
I begin by agreeing with the Bishop’s letter when they acknowledge the tensions inherent in being communities faithful to the reforming Word of God.
They write ‘the church must always be reformed according to the Word of God, and God has “more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word”. But neither can we simply abandon what we have received in order to appear relevant and avoid feeling uncomfortable. As God’s people carefully re-read Scripture together, allowing it to teach us, we may be challenged where we are wrong and be led into deep learning, serious intellectual persuasion, and heart-felt repentance for past errors.’
For me these words suggest a relationship with scripture that is always unfolding, never exhausted and where understandings may need to change and evolve over time. It is precisely this understanding of the re-forming Word that leads folk like me to support the extending of the marriage covenant to same-sex couples. But the letter remains insistent there can be no change in the ‘traditional’ understanding of marriage. I want to ask – on the basis of the letter’s own understanding of the re-forming Word – why not?
In his book ‘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.’ (2008:89 my italics)
This does begin to offer us a faithful way to address the question of how to read the scriptures for guidance about issues or people it a) originally addressed in very different contexts, b) does not directly address at all, or c) possibly does not even know exists. This is an approach to bible reading variously described as a ‘Redemptive’ or ‘Christological’ trajectory, a ‘continuing unfolding’ or a ‘developing understanding’ of what scripture teaches and calls us to across time. (The reply fairly made here that while all the other ‘trajectories’ already have positive hints in the New Testament the teaching about homosexuality is always negative. But this is only partially true. The argument needs more care. Firstly, ‘homosexual’ is not a biblical word. The word first appears in any English bible translation in the first edition of the new RSV in 1946. Those texts traditionally presumed to be teaching against homosexual relationships in every case describe subjugation, rape or violence, excessive lustful activity, patterns of coercive male dominance and a total disregard of acceptable norms of social, religious and sexual behaviour. So it is more accurate to say that these Bible texts condemn abusive sexual behaviour of any kind. They are not for applying to what is loving, faithful and committed).
The idea of a developing reading of scripture is not as novel an idea as may first appear. We have been reading the Bible in this way for some time. The Church of England, for example, does not believe the New Testament speaks with a final voice on the partnership of men and women in society, church leadership or marriage. And slavery? We believe today that slavery is an appalling unchristian evil. But where does the bible ever say this? There is not one condemning text and a great deal else that appears to allow the opposite.
Furthermore an unfolding revelation is evident within the scriptures. When Peter is told in a dream to eat food forbidden in Torah and then goes into the house of a Gentile and sees the Spirit of God fall on outsiders, where is he to go biblically to explain this? Something very new is going on. Don’t underestimate how disturbing this would have been. On a discussion thread about same-sex relationships a conservative contributor wrote that when people talked about allowing these things, ‘I feel as if my face is being pushed into vomit.’ On his Joppa rooftop Peter would have understood that feeling very well. But he learned that revulsion is not a reliable guide to good theology, divine will and purpose.
Peter and the Jerusalem Council proceeded in vulnerable obedience under the compelling guidance of the Spirit. And when we try to pull out Old Testament verses that talk about the inclusion of Gentiles we are still missing the challenge faced by the first Christians. Those prophecies saw Gentiles welcomed into the Jewish world and religion on Jewish terms. That is why so much of the argument centred around how Jewish Gentile believers needed to become – food, circumcision, behaviour etc. What they could not even receive yet – except as a nightmare – was that God was creating a community based on radically new belonging and identity in Christ, one that is yet to be fully revealed – neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female.
What begins at Joppa goes beyond the received revelation as long understood. But not surprisingly the Jewish/Gentile tension seems to run unresolved through the whole New Testament church. It was their version of our sexuality debates. Perhaps they too wondered if good disagreement was possible?
I do want to question the way the 11 Bishops letter tends to only set the Word of God/teaching of the church over and against those voices challenging traditional teaching. A familiar response to those arguing for a more including approach is that they have been ‘influenced by the culture of the day’ (a culture presumed to be wholly negative and faithless). But I would say ‘yes we are – and thank God for that’! What accelerated the movement to abolish slavery in Britain and apartheid in South Africa was not compelling biblical teaching. Large numbers of Christians supported both precisely on the basis of scripture. It began in a very similar way to how opinions and beliefs about the gay community have been changing in recent years. People began to tell stories of what it was actually like. The inhumanity. The brutality. The exclusion. And that led Christians back to the re-forming Word with new sensitivity. The same happened with contraception debates during the 1920-30s (a topic on which it is hard to find any clear biblical texts). It was fiercely opposed by the Mothers Union and by successive Lambeth conferences who could only see it as a licence for promiscuity. Slowly an awareness of the brutal realities of women’s health and life expectancy, of large families living in poverty, of children’s welfare and dire social deprivation began to be heard. (It has been noted elsewhere that the quotation about marriage in the letter from the 1920 Lambeth Conference is unfortunate in being lifted from a highly reactionary and conservative debate opposing contraception. In its original context the quote is supporting a view of marriage and family the church, and these signatories do not hold).
Of course not all cultural pressure is Godly or wise. It needs testing. Christian faith is profoundly counter-cultural. But then, as now, cultural and social pressure play an important part in raising awareness and awakening conscience in a way that has forced a revisiting of how we have been reading and interpreting the bible for today. So, as the letter acknowledges, 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 the Evangelical tradition is unfamiliar with or unwilling to undertake. In fact its understanding of scripture actually requires it.
In his book ‘Beyond the Bible – moving from scripture to theology ‘ the revered evangelical theologian and Bible commentator I Howard Marshall admits the risk involved in this – of going beyond the received Biblical texts. But he insists there is another risk. It is that of misleading the church by dwelling in the first century or 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. Scripture itself constrains us to the task of on-going theological development’ (2004:78).
In all this debate I acknowledge my place in a conflicted community. I contribute to both hope and pain with words like these. I walk with close friends and colleagues who deeply disagree with me. I respect them and long to continue this journey of faith with the re-forming Word. And in that renewing and awakening Word I believe there is another story being told; one that is yet to be fully revealed; one that is found both within and beyond the texts; one that is always breaking through. It is one that we can trust with our lives – and even our divisions.
1. The Bishops’ letter can be read here:
2. You can read about the ‘Living in Life and Faith’ Project here:
3. The two other responses can be found here: