‘Don’t go listening to lies’? Absolutely. A response to Rosie Harper.

  1. The general confession in the Book of Common Prayer.

For centuries members of the Church of England have confessed their sins using the words of the general confession in the Book of Common Prayer. They have prayed:

‘Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, We have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done, And there is no health in us: But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders; Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults, Restore thou them that are penitent, According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord: And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.’[1]

Those who have prayed in this way have believed that the words they have said correspond to the truth of the human situation. We have turned from God’s ways and have become people who are at odds with God and consequently we need to ask his forgiveness and seek his help to amend our lives.

  1. Why Canon Harper holds that what the confession says is a lie.

Today, however, there are members of the Church of England who tell us that those who have believed this have been taught and accepted a lie.

We can see this, for example, if we look at the recent article ‘Don’t go listening to lies’ written by Canon Rosie Harper, the Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham and a member of the General Synod.[2] In her article Canon Harper begins by quoting with approval a song she heard sung at a school assembly, a song which began with the words  ‘Don’t go listening to lies.’  She argues that this is a lesson that we all need to learn and that it is particularly important that we should not go listening to lies about God.

As she sees it, the fundamental lie to which we should not listen is the lie that there is something wrong with us in God’s eyes. In her words, ‘The fundamental lie is that you simply being you won’t do.’  She goes on to say that we need to reject, and be mentally healed from, are the ideas that there is an ‘angry God’ who ‘will never fully accept you the way he created you’  and that ‘it isn’t only what you do, but who you are that is wrong.’

If we compare what Canon Harper says with the words of the general confession we can see that the two are totally incompatible, The Book of Common Prayer tells us that ‘there is no health in us.’ Canon Harper tells us that this is a lie. If one is true, then the other is not.

So, which should we believe?

  1. C S Lewis and the significance of the moral law.

A helpful way to start to think about this issue is provided by C S Lewis in his book Mere Christianity. In the opening chapters of this book Lewis notes that all of us, whether we are religious or not, have a basic and ineradicable sense that there is moral law, a law concerning right and wrong, that we ought to obey.

He then notes two further things. First, that when we are honest with ourselves we all know we have broken this moral law. Secondly, that the existence of this moral law only makes sense if there is lawgiver, an ‘absolute goodness,’ whom Christians call ‘God.’

These three facts, that there is a moral law, that there has to be a God who has given this law and that we have broken this law, should, he declares, give us ‘…. cause to be uneasy.’[3]  The difficulty we are faced with, writes Lewis:

‘… is that one part of you is on his [God’s] side and really agrees with His disapproval of human greed and trickery and exploitation. You may want Him to make an exception in your own case, to let you off this one time; but you know at bottom that unless the power behind the world really and unalterably detests that sort of behaviour, then He cannot be good. On the other hand, we know that if there does exist an absolute goodness it must hate most of what we do. This is the terrible fix we are in. If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless. But if it is, then we are making ourselves enemies to that goodness every day, and we are not in the least likely to do any better to-morrow, and so our case is hopeless again. We cannot do without it, and we cannot do with it. God is the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror: the thing we must need and the thing we most want to hide from. He is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies. Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again. They are still only playing with religion. Goodness is either the great safety or the great danger – according to the way you react to it. And we have reacted the wrong way.’ [4]

  1. Why Scripture confirms that Lewis is correct.

These words by Lewis are an example of what is known as ‘natural theology,’ that is, theology based on our ordinary everyday experience. They are confirmed by what God himself tells us in Scripture. Thus, the Psalmist tells us:

‘The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men,
to see if there are any that act wisely,
that seek after God.

They have all gone astray, they are all alike corrupt;
there is none that does good,
no, not one.’ (Psalm 14:2-3)

It is because this is so that the Psalmist prays:

‘Enter not into judgment with thy servant;for no man living is righteous before thee.’ (Psalm 143:2)

It is also why the Apostle John tells us: ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us…. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us.’ (1 John 1: 8-10)

In addition to these specific declarations of human sinfulness (of which there are many others in Bible) the whole story arc of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is one long narrative about how all human beings bar one have sinned against God in a multitude of different ways, not loving God and not loving their neighbours as themselves.  Furthermore, the biblical narrative also tells us that God not only expresses his disapproval of human sin, but that he reacts to it with a series of temporal judgements that prefigure the final judgement at the end of time when those who have not repented of their sins enter into the ‘second death (Revelation 20:14) in which they are cut off from God and all good forever.

  1. The two problems with Canon Harper’s approach.

For Canon Harper, it appears, all this is a lie. God does not ever really disapprove of who we are and what we do[5] because we are as he created us to be. There are two problems with this claim.

First, it is at odds with both natural and revealed theology, both universal experience and Holy Scripture. This raises the question, which she never addresses, of why she thinks what she says is true. What is her additional, and more reliable, source of information about God and the human condition?

Secondly, she fails to acknowledge the problem of human brokenness. If we are how God intended us to be then, frankly, he has not made a very god job of creating us. He is like a dodgy builder who has thrown up a house where the plumbing doesn’t work, the doors don’t fit and the roof leaks.

The only rational way we can continue to make the Christian affirmation that God possesses ‘infinite power, wisdom and goodness’[6] is if we say that we are not the people we were created to be. We have to say that something that has gone wrong that has been contrary to God’s original intention for his human creatures.

This is, of course exactly what Scripture and the orthodox Christian tradition do say. They tell us that what has gone wrong is that starting right back at the beginning of human history humans have mis-used the free will God gave them by rebelling against him at the behest of an evil spiritual power whom the Bible calls Satan.  To quote Lewis again:

‘What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could be like gods – could set up on their own as if they had created themselves – be their own masters – invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history – money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery – the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.’[7]

As Lewis goes on to say, this attempt to find happiness apart from God has never succeeded and will never succeed.

‘God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.’ [8]

  1. God’s solution to Man’s plight.

If this is the human situation, it might appear that there is no hope for any of us. We were created to find our happiness in God, but it is God against whom we have rebelled and continue to rebel. Why, then, have those who have prayed the general confession continued to look to God with expectation and hope? It is because they know that God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves.

God became Man in Jesus Christ and on the first Good Friday he died on the cross in our place in an act of divine judgement. He did this in order to put to death our old sinful natures so that we might receive instead a wholly new life through his resurrection (Romans 6:6-11).  In the words of the Apostle Paul, we become a ‘new creation’ (2 Corinthians 5:17).

As John Calvin puts it:

‘…. our old man is destroyed by the death of Christ, so that His resurrection may restore our righteousness, and make us new creatures. And since Christ has been given to us for life, why should we die with Him, if not to rise to a better life? Christ, therefore, puts to death what is mortal in us in order that He may truly restore us to life.’ [9]

As a consequence the Christian life, the ‘godly, righteous, and sober life’ referred to in the general confession, is a life marked by mortification and vivification. ‘As mortification, holiness is the laying aside of that which has been put to death at the cross of the Son of God; as vivification, holiness is the living out of that which has been made alive in the Son’s resurrection.’[10]  In the words of 1 Peter 2:24: ‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.’

This dual calling to mortification and vivification can often seem nothing short of utterly terrifying because it asks us to hand over the control of lives totally to God and do whatever he tells us to do, however counter-intuitive or painful this may seem. However, to quote Lewis one last time, terrifying though this may be, it is actually easier than what we naturally want to do:

‘The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self – all your wishes and precautions – to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call ‘ourselves,’ to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be ‘good.’ We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way -centred on money or pleasure or ambition and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us that you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs. If I am a field that contains nothing but grass seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, that change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and re-sown.’[11]

Furthermore, God does not leave us to undergo the process of being ploughed up and re-sown on our own. He gives us the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit – that same power which empowered Jesus Himself – he gives us the Scriptures to direct our paths, he gives us the sacraments and our Christian brothers and sisters, and he responds to our prayers for help whenever we remember to ‘ask, seek and knock’ (Matthew 7:7-11).

The Christian way is thus hard, but it is not impossible, and it is the path that leads us to the life with God which God has intended for us all along.

  1. The traditional Christian approach and the issue of mental well-being.

A further point that needs to be noted, is that the Christian path is also the one that corresponds to the principles of mental well-being. Canon Harper refers in her paper to ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’ and seems to suggest that what is required for mental health is for people to simply receive unconditional acceptance. They simply need to know that they are accepted as they are by God and others. However, the achievement of mental health is more complex than this simplistic model.

Mental well-being requires two key things, acceptance of reality, of how things really are, and a willingness to take responsibility for what we have done in the past and need to do in the present and future to make things better for ourselves and others. Without these two factors being in place people will remain trapped in what is known as ‘denial’ and will not be able to make progress with their lives.

As an example, consider someone who is an alcoholic. It no use them simply receiving acceptance. If they are to move forward and achieve a better life, they need to admitthat they have a problem with alcohol, take responsibility for the harm their abuse of alcohol has caused and take responsibility for ensuring they do not abuse alcohol in the future.

In a similar fashion we are all, all of us, sin addicts in various ways. If we want to move forward to achieve the lives for which we were created, we need to (a) acknowledge this fact, (b) take responsibility for the hurt our sins have caused to God and others, and (c) take responsibility, with God’s help, for turning our back on these sins and living the new life that Christ died and rose to make possible.

Canon  Harper’s approach of acceptance and affirmation may superficially appear kind and loving, but, in reality,  it is deeply cruel. This is because it leaves people with the illusion that they are Ok as they are. However, it is only when this illusion is shattered, when we understand and accept that we are sinners who need God’s mercy and a completely new start, that we can actually make progress with God.

It is neither kind nor loving to tell someone with a potentially fatal disease that there is nothing wrong with them. In a similar way it is neither kind nor loving to tell unrepentant sinners that they are Ok before God as they are.

  1. Conclusion.

In conclusion, Canon Harper is completely right when she says ‘Don’t go listening to lies.’ However, the big lie is the lie that says we are Ok as we are. We are not. We are sinners facing the judgement of God and we need to accept God’s offer of forgiveness and a new start while there is still time. To use the old language, there needs to be repentance and amendment of life. Furthermore, this is not a one-off thing. We need to die to sin daily and we will need to continue to do this until the day we finally enter God’s eternal kingdom.

That is what we ourselves need to accept. That is what we have to tell others. Anything else is a cruel deception. It is a lie which we need to reject. Don’t go listening to lies…

M B Davie 24.10.19

[1] The Book of Common Prayer, the general confession at Morning and Evening Prayer.

[2] Rosie Harper, ‘Don’t go listening to lies,’  Via Media .News, 22 October 2019 at

https://viamedia.news/2019/10/22/dont-go-listening-to-lies/.

[3] C S Lewis, Mere Christianity, Glasgow: Fount, 1984, Ch.5, title.

[4] Ibid, pp.36-37.

[5] It is worth noting that being and doing cannot be separated. We are not good people who inexplicably  do bad things. We are all bad people (‘there is no health in us’) who commit sin because we are bad people.

[6] The Thirty Nine Articles, Article 1.

[7] Lewis, op.cit., p.50.

[8] Ibid, p.50.

[9] John Calvin, Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians, Edinburgh: The SaintAndrew Press, 1961 pp.122-3.

[10] John Webster, Holiness, London: SCM, 2003, p.88.

[11] Lewis, op.cit., pp.165-166.

Brexit, the bishops and the rich fool

The bishops’ joint statement about Brexit.

Following the events that took place in the Supreme Court and Parliament last week the Bishops of the Church of England have issued a joint statement about Brexit in which they make four key points:

  • First, that the result of the 2016 referendum ‘should be honoured.’
  • Secondly, that in debates about Brexit we ‘should speak to others with respect’ and should also listen, especially to the poor, the marginalised and ‘those whose voices are often not heard in our national conversation.’
  • Thirdly, politicians should ‘adhere rigorously to the rule of law ‘and everyone should ‘respect and uphold the impartiality of the courts and our judiciary.’
  • Fourthly, we must renew the structures in our national life that ‘enable us ‘to love one another.’ [1]

These four points are unexceptionable, if rather lacking in detail (what exactly does it mean, for example to ‘honour’ the result of the referendum, or to ‘renew’ the structures of our national life?) and one has to acknowledge that getting 118 bishops to agree a statement on Brexit was no mean feat.

The presupposition behind the Brexit debate.

Nevertheless, the statement is seriously flawed because the bishops have failed to address the most fundamental issue facing our nation at the moment, an issue which the Brexit debate has ignored ever since the original referendum campaign back in 2016.

To understand why this is the case we need to note that the presupposition shared by those on both sides of the debate about Brexit is that the key issue facing our country at the moment has to do with economics.

Although the debate has also touched on issues of national identity and national sovereignty, at the heart of the Brexit debate is a division of opinion about what will be most economically beneficial for the future of this country. On the one hand there are those who think we have the best chance of economic prosperity if we leave the European Union and make our own new trading arrangements with other nations, and on the other hand there are those who think we have the best chance of economic prosperity in both the short and long term if we remain within it.

From a Christian perspective the question of what future political arrangements are most like to bring about economic prosperity is an important one. This is because people in this country, as in all countries, need food, clothing, housing, education, jobs, healthcare and so forth, and we need the means to enable them to have these things. In particular, we need to take whatever steps we can to ensure that these things are available to those who are in especial need because of the place where they live, or because of their personal circumstances.

However, the problem is that in contemporary discussions about the future of our country, including the debate about Brexit, it is generally assumed that the most important thing that people need is material prosperity. The current divisions in our political system are not about whether this is the case. All sides assume that it is. What they differ over is the best way for material prosperity to be achieved.

Jesus’ teaching about the rich fool and its relevance to Brexit debate.

From a Christian viewpoint, however, the assumption that material prosperity is the highest good for human beings is one that needs to be challenged. This is made clear in the teaching of Jesus in Luke 12:13-21 which runs as follows:

‘One of the multitude said to him, ‘Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.’  But he said to him, ‘Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’ And he told them a parable, saying, ‘The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.’

The key point Jesus is making is that ‘a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’  However many possessions (or however much money) we manage to acquire during the course of our life in this world, at the end of our life they will be taken away from us. As the Spanish proverb puts it ‘there are no pockets in a shroud.’ What matters at the point of death is therefore what we can take with us into the world to come, namely our relationship with God.

When we die all that will be of importance is whether or not we have a right relationship with God, whether, in Jesus’ words, we are ‘rich towards God.’  This is because it is only if we have such a relationship that we will be happy with God for ever in his eternal kingdom. If, like the rich fool in Jesus’ parable, we chose to focus on ourselves and our possessions and turn our back on God we shall instead suffer what the Bible calls the ‘second death’ (Revelation 21:8), alienation from God and all good for ever. In the words of J I Packer, ‘the unbeliever has preferred to be by himself, without God, defying God, having God against him, and he shall have his choice.’ [2]

The most fundamental issue facing our nation at the moment is that we have collectively come to take the attitude of the rich fool. Historically, as the historical records show, the inhabitants of what is now the United Kingdom have acknowledged that the most important thing in human existence is to be rightly prepared for the world to come. In the words of the Prayer Book funeral service, they have acknowledged that ‘Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live’ and they have therefore prayed:

‘We meekly beseech thee, O Father, to raise us from the death of sin unto the life of righteousness; that, when we shall depart this life, we may rest in him, as our hope is this our brother doth; and that, at the general Resurrection in the last day, we may be found acceptable in thy sight, and receive that blessing, which thy well-beloved Son shall then pronounce to all that love and fear thee, saying, Come, ye blessed children of my Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world: Grant this, we beseech thee, O merciful Father, through Jesus Christ, our Mediator and Redeemer.’

Today, however, most people in this country no longer see the need to prepare for life after death. They no longer seek the mercy of God through Jesus Christ in order that they may have a blessed eternity. Like the rich fool, they see life in this world as all that matters and that is why they see achieving material prosperity in this life as the top political priority. That, in turn, is why the pitch made to voters by the political parties is that they the one who are best able to provide material prosperity and that is why in the Brexit debate both side have proclaimed that their approach is that one that will guarantee material prosperity in the future.

What the bishops need to do.

All this being the case, it is not sufficient to do as the bishops have done and tell politicians and others that they can carry on the same debate, but need to dial back the rhetoric a bit.

What the bishops need to do instead is to go back to basics and produce a much more radical document designed to reframe the whole national conversation.

In this document they need to challenge the way in which the issue of whether Britain should leave or remain in the European Union has come to be given absolute importance. They need to remind people that, whatever happens to Britain’s relationship with the European Union, God will still be God and people will still need to be properly related to him if they want to avoid a lost eternity.

They also need to remind people that the issue facing the nation is not just about not giving overmuch weight to the Brexit debate. More basically it is about not attaching too much importance to the quest for material prosperity in general. Jesus is quite clear. ‘You cannot serve God and mammon’ (Matthew 6:24). Mammon means ‘wealth’ or ‘riches’ and what Jesus is saying is we have to choose who we will give our allegiance to. If the focus of our life lies in acquiring money or material possessions then we have necessarily rejected God, even if we acknowledge that God exists and sometimes give him some attention. As John Stott writes:

‘…anybody who divides his allegiance between God and mammon has already given it to mammon, since God can only be served with an entire and exclusive devotion. This is simply because he is God: ‘I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other [Isaiah 42:8, 48:11]. To try to share him with other loyalties is to have opted for idolatry.’ [3]

From this perspective the Brexit debate illustrates the fact that we have become an idolatrous nation and the bishops need to say so.

Finally, they need to urge people to turn back to God while there is still time. God is patient and merciful and allows people time to come back to him. However, his patience will not last forever. One day, like the rich fool, we will find that time has run out and at that point all that will matter is where we stand with God.

It will be said that there is no way that the bishops will be prepared to issue such a radically counter cultural statement, or that the nation will listen if they do. Both these points may well be true, but, if they are, what this shows is just how far the Church and the nation have turned away from the Christian faith.  If this is the case then the calling of faithful Christians is not be silent, but rather to be courageous in reminding the Church and the nation of Jesus’ warning about the fate of the rich fool and to pray that God will send a revival that will turn the Church and nation back to him.

M B Davie 30.9.19

[1] ‘Bishops call for respect on all sides amid Brexit debate,’ at https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/news/bishops-call-respect-all-sides-amid-brexit-debate.

[2] J I Packer, Knowing God, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1975, p.170.

[3] John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, Leicester: IVP, 1978, pp.158-159.

Thinking further about Baptism

What Bishop David says in his article.

In the ninth in the ‘Does the Bible Really Say…?’ series, Bishop David Gillett considers the question ‘Does the Bible Really Say…that Baptism Should be Withheld from Some People?’[1]

In his article Bishop David does not directly answer the question contained in the title. What he does instead is contrast the position of the Church of England with that of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. The latter, he says ‘refuses baptism to those in a same sex marriage and to their children,’ whereas, in spite of the approach taken by some members of the clergy, the policy of the Church of England is that those in same-sex sexual relationships and their children should be admitted to baptism and that where there are two parents of the same sex they should both be listed as mothers or fathers in the baptism register.

According to Bishop David, the welcoming approach of the Church of England corresponds to something:

‘…. deep in the DNA of Christian faith that impels us to receive and welcome all who come to us – our first instinct is naturally to want to extend the loving welcome of God in Christ. Of course, in the baptism service itself, the godparents or the adult candidates will go on to make a profession of faith but this follows on from the wholehearted and sincere welcome which has first been extended – the kind of welcome that Jesus demonstrated when the disciples were minded to be exclusionary in their approach. Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, ‘let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs. (Matthew 19: 13f).’

It also, he writes:

‘… reflects the outcome of the quick thinking which no doubt Philip had to do when the Ethiopian Eunuch made his request for baptism– ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ In this case, as the enquirer was both a eunuch and a Gentile he did not fulfill the usual requirements to which Philip was accustomed. Many would have excluded him from full involvement in the worshiping community. In Philip’s eyes, following Jesus’ example, the Ethiopian’s difference was no bar to full inclusion. (Acts 8.26-40)’

The conclusion Bishop David reaches at the end of his article is that:

‘Many of us are frustrated by the Church of England’s ponderously slow and drawn out process of deciding on full equality for LGBTQ+ people. At times it can seem to many that there is a deliberate policy of delay in facilitating progress towards the eventual acceptance of equal marriage. However, in contrast, there is a clear acceptance that baptism is fully inclusive. Meanwhile we are in the ironic situation where baptism, the foundation sacrament within the Church, is open to all whereas lawfully married same sex couples are barred from both a church marriage and the possibility of ordination.

The hope and prayers of an increasing number from all traditions within the Church – be they catholic, reformed, liberal or evangelical, formal or informal – are focused on full equality for LGBTQ+ people in all sacraments and ordinances from baptism through the whole of life – for themselves, their partners and their ministries.’

How should we respond to what Bishop David says?

The current position of the Church of England.

To start off with, we have to acknowledge that what Bishop David says about the approach taken by the Church of England is factually correct. The House of Bishops has made clear in its statements on civil partnerships and same- sex marriage that being in a same-sex sexual relationship should not be a bar to baptism, and that likewise baptism cannot lawfully be refused to children for whom those in same-sex sexual relationships have parental responsibility.[2]

Paragraphs 23-25 of the 2005 document ‘Civil Partnerships – A pastoral statement from the House of Bishops of the Church of England’ state:

‘The House considers that lay people who have registered civil partnerships ought not to be asked to give assurances about the nature of their relationship before being admitted to baptism, confirmation and communion. Issues in Human Sexuality made it clear that, while the same standards apply to all, the Church did not want to exclude from its fellowship those lay people of gay or lesbian orientation who, in conscience, were unable to accept that a life of sexual abstinence was required of them and instead chose to enter into a faithful, committed relationship.

The Adoption Act 2003 allows for couples that are not married, opposite-sex and same-sex, to adopt children. The Civil Partnership Act includes legislation about children and reflects an expectation that some people who register civil partnerships will have children in their care. While the House of Bishops recognises many in the Church have reservations about these developments, we believe an unconditional welcome should be given to children in our churches, regardless of the structure of the family in which they are being brought up.

In relation to infant baptism, Canon B 22.4 makes it clear that, while baptism can be delayed for the purposes of instruction (including on marriage and the family), it cannot be refused. The responsibility for taking vows on behalf of the infant rests with the parents and godparents. Provided there is a willingness, following a period of instruction to give those vows, priests cannot refuse to baptise simply because those caring for the infant are not, in their view, living in accordance with the Church’s teaching.’[3]

Paragraphs 15-18 of the Appendix to ‘The House of Bishops Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage’ issued in 2014 draw on the 2005 document and reach the same conclusion. They state:

‘In Issues in Human Sexuality the House affirmed that, while the same standards of  conduct applied to all, the Church of England should not exclude from its fellowship those lay people of gay or lesbian orientation who, in conscience, were unable to accept that a life of sexual abstinence was required of them and who, instead, chose to enter into a faithful, committed sexually active relationship.

Consistent with that, we said in our 2005 pastoral statement that lay people who had registered civil partnerships ought not to be asked to give assurances about the nature of their relationship before being admitted to baptism, confirmation and holy communion, or being welcomed into the life of the local worshipping community more generally.

We also noted that the clergy could not lawfully refuse to baptize children on account of the family structure or lifestyle of those caring for them, so long as they and the godparents were willing to make the requisite baptismal promises following a period of instruction.

We recognise the many reasons why couples wish their relationships to have a formal status. These include the joys of exclusive commitment and also extend to the importance of legal recognition of the relationship. To that end, civil partnership continues to be available for same sex couples. Those same sex couples who choose to marry should be welcomed into the life of the worshipping community and not be subjected to questioning about their lifestyle. Neither they nor any children they care for should be denied access to the sacraments.‘[4]

Bishop David is also correct in what he says about the guidance given by the Legal Advisory Commission of the General Synod in 2017 about what should be put in the Baptism register when two people of the same sex have a shared parental responsibility. The guidance says:

‘(a) the columns referring to fathers and mothers must be read as relating to those currently holding parental responsibility for the child, who may or may not be a biological parent (or in exceptional circumstances to those entitled to exercise the power under section 2(5) of the Children Act 1989);

(b)where persons of the same sex share parental responsibility their names should both be inserted in the same gender specific column, namely, Father’s name or Mother’s name.’[5]

However, the fact that Bishop David is factually correct about the position of the Church of England does not mean that that position is itself correct theologically. It may be, or it may or not be. It is to this issue we now turn.

Assessing the Church of England’s position.

In assessing the Church of England’s position we need to be clear at the outset that, according to the teaching of Holy Scripture, marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman, the sole legitimate place of sexual intercourse is within marriage, and that all forms of sexual intercourse outside marriage (including between two people of the same-sex) are what the Bible calls porneia, illicit sexual activity that renders someone unclean in the sight of God (Mark 7:21-23). The calling of Christians is to ‘glorify God in your body’ (1 Corinthians 6:20) and this involves refraining from all forms of porneia, including same-sex sexual activity.[6]

However, the question we need to consider in this article is not simply whether same-sexual activity is sinful, but whether someone may rightly be baptised if they are in same-sex sexual relationship themselves, or if they are a child for whom two people in a same-sex sexual relationship have parental responsibility.

We cannot resolve this latter issue simply by appealing to Jesus’ welcoming children in Matthew 19:13-15 or Philip’s baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:36-38. Both of these passages indicate in general terms the importance of welcoming those who come forward for baptism, whether they are children or adults. However, neither of these passages address the specific issue we are interested in and, in fact, this issue is not specifically addressed anywhere in the Bible.

How, then, can we resolve it? What we have to do is to go back to first principles and look at the nature of baptism.

A good place to begin is the definition of baptism contained in the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer. This runs as follows:

‘Question. What is the outward visible sign or form in Baptism?

Answer. Water: wherein the person is baptized, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

Question. What is the inward and spiritual grace?

Answer. A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness: for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.

Question. What is required of persons to be baptized?

Answer. Repentance, whereby they forsake sin: and faith, whereby they steadfastly believe the promises of God, made to them in that Sacrament.

If we unpack this definition, we find that at baptism a gift is given by God, the gift of death to sin and a new birth unto righteousness (John 3:1-8, Romans 6:1-11).’

In order for this gift to be given and received two things have to happen. (a) There needs to be baptism with water in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19) and (b) the person baptised needs to repent and believe (Acts 2:38, Mark 16:16). This repentance and faith is expressed formally through the promises made in the baptismal liturgy, but it is something that then needs to be lived out in the whole of someone’s life then and thereafter.

This understanding of baptism raises the obvious question of why it is right to baptise infants who are necessarily incapable of repentance and faith. This question is answered in the Catechism as follows:

‘Question. Why then are infants baptized, when by reason of their tender age they cannot perform them?

Answer. Because they promise them both by their sureties: which promise, when they come to age, themselves are bound to perform.’

What this is saying is that when an infant is baptised those speaking on their behalf (their ‘sureties,’ today parents and godparents) make promises for them and the child then accepts and performs these promises when they are old enough to do so. In the language of the Book of Common Prayer confirmation service they thus ‘ratify and confirm’ the promises of repentance and faith made on their behalf.

What we now have to decide is how this understanding of baptism relates to the question of whether those who are in a same-sex sexual relationship, or children for whom those in a same-sex sexual relationship have parental responsibility, can properly be baptised.

Why the House of Bishops’ statements are unhelpful.

To start off with, we have to note that the reference made in both of the House of Bishops statements to what is said in Issues in Human Sexuality is unhelpful. These statements refer to paragraph 5.6 of Issues, which discusses lay people in same-sex relationships. This paragraph states:

‘At the same time there are others who are conscientiously convinced that this way of abstinence is not the best for them, and that they have more hope of growing in love for God and neighbour with the help of a loving and faithful homophile[7] partnership, in intention lifelong, where mutual self -giving includes the physical expression of their attachment. In responding to this conviction it is important to bear in mind the historic tension in Christian ethical thinking between the God given moral order and the freedom of the moral agent. While insisting that conscience needs to be informed in the light of that order, Christian tradition also contains an emphasis on respect for free conscientious judgment where the individual has seriously weighed the issues involved. The homophile is only one in a range of such cases. While unable, therefore, to commend the way of life just described as in itself as faithful a reflection of God’s purposes in creation as the heterophile,[8] we do not reject those who sincerely believe it is God’s call to them. We stand alongside them in the fellowship of the church, all alike dependent upon the undeserved grace of God.’ [9]

The problem with this paragraph is that it suggests that committed same-sex sexual relationships between lay people are acceptable in the Church because the people concerned sincerely believe in all good conscience that this is what is right for them. What the paragraph is saying, in effect, is that sincerity is enough to render a form of sexual behaviour acceptable within the life of the Church.

However, as Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 5:8, commenting precisely on the issue of sexual behaviour, the life of Christians has to be marked not by sincerity alone, but by ‘sincerity and truth.’ Christians not only need to be sincere in their behaviour (in the sense of acting in accordance with their convictions), but how they behave needs to be based on truth, the truth of how God created human beings to be. To put it another way, Christian behaviour needs to be marked by a sincere commitment to the objective truth of how people ought to behave.

The Issues paragraph detaches sincerity from truth and for this reason it is misleading. People may indeed sincerely believe that what God wills for them is that they should be in a same-sex sexual relationship, but this belief is contrary to the truth and does not render their behaviour any less sinful.[10]

We cannot say, therefore, that we can baptise people because their same-sex sexual behaviour really doesn’t matter since they believe that it is OK. We have to acknowledge that, whatever they think about the issue, their behaviour is sinful and that this sin matters.

What we also cannot say is that it is right to baptise the children of same-sex couples because Canon 22:4 gives no option in the matter. The bishops are right about what the Canon says. It is clear that the baptism of children may be delayed for instruction, but cannot be refused. However, this does not mean that the Canon is right.

So how should we assess whether it is right to baptise those in same-sexual relationships or the children for whom they are responsible? Should the nature of their relationship be viewed as in itself an absolute impediment to baptism?

Should a same sex-sexual relationship be seen as an absolute impediment to baptism?

Two different approaches to this issue are taken by those who accept the biblical teaching that same-sex sexual relationships are sinful.

Approach A

The first approach holds that the existence of a same-sex sexual relationship is an absolute impediment. This approach begins from the Anglican conviction, derived from the Bible, that baptism needs to involve repentance and faith. As we have already noted, this means that those who come to baptism need to not only ‘steadfastly believe the promises of God, made to them in that Sacrament’ but also ‘forsake sin’ since that is what repentance involves.

Those who are in a same-sex sexual relationship have not forsaken sin since they are still involved in it. Hence when they say in the baptism service that they repent ‘of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour’[11] they are not telling the truth. Their relationship show that they have not yet truly repented.

What follows from this is that someone in a same-sex sexual relationship may indeed receive the ‘outward visible sign’ of baptism. but their lack of repentance means that they will not receive the ‘inward spiritual grace.’ Furthermore, not only will they not receive the spiritual benefits promised to those who receive baptism rightly, but the perjury involved in saying that they repent when they do not will actually make their situation before God worse. Rather than their sin being taken away it will have been added to.

In addition, if a church allows someone to say that they repent of their sin while they are in same-sex sexual relationship this must mean that either the church holds that their relationship is not really sinful, or that this sin does not need to be repented of, neither of which are positions that a church should take. If a church says, as it should, that same-sex sexual relationships are sinful, then this means that a church must not baptise someone who is still in such a relationship.

With regard to the children for whom those in same-sex relationships have parental responsibility, the argument put forward by those who take this approach is that children share in the same covenant relationship with God as their parents. In the words of Archbishop Cranmer ‘they are participants in the same divine promise and covenant.’[12]

For those children whose parents are in a right relationship with God through repentance and faith this shared covenant relationship brings spiritual blessing. However, those in same-sex sexual relationships are not in a right relationship with God due to lack of repentance. It follows that baptising children for whom they are responsible would not only not make those children’s spiritual condition better, but would actually make it worse, since they would then be implicated in the false promise of repentance made on their behalf.

Furthermore, since those living in same-sex sexual relationships will bring up children to believe that such relationships are not sinful, these children’s alienation from God will be increased as they grow older and come to accept this belief for themselves. If a church does not address the issue of the sinfulness of same-sex relationships by saying no to a request for baptism it will be conniving with this downward trajectory.

The last point that needs to be noted, is that those who take this approach would never simply tell those in same-sex relationships to go away. They would do their best to welcome them and their children and they would use the period of instruction allowed under Canon B22:4 to work with them to help them reach a position where they were no longer in a same-sex sexual relationship and so the impediment to baptism would no longer exist.

Approach B

The second approach holds that the existence of a same sex-sexual relationship is not an absolute impediment to baptism.

To take the issue of the baptism of adults first, those who take this second approach would agree that same-sex sexual relationships are sinful and that those in such relationships should be encouraged to cease being in them. However, they would say that there are number of reasons why this fact should not prevent people who are still in such relationships being baptized.

First, it is argued, those who are in same-sex sexual relationships need to be baptised (just like anyone else) and that they can be baptised in the sense that they can receive baptism with water in the name of the Trinity and make the baptismal promises.

Secondly, because only God can see the secrets of people’s hearts, we are not in a position to say that someone who is in a same-sex sexual relationship (or anyone else) is not sincere in their desire to be baptised, or their willingness to make the baptismal promises. Having made sure that people have been instructed about the meaning of baptism and the seriousness of the promises they will make, we have to take people at their word, as we do, for example, when people make their wedding vows.

Thirdly, we cannot say that because someone has not yet turned away from sin in one area of their life then any profession of repentance that they make is therefore insincere. All of us that we have areas of our life in which we do not yet live as we should (see 1 John 1:8-10). However, this does not mean that our repentance and faith are not real. None of us are without sin now and none of us will ever be without sin this side of eternity. If repentance involving total freedom from sin was a prerequisite for baptism then no one would ever be reach the stage where they could be baptised. It is therefore unjust to single out a special category of sexual sinner and say they cannot be baptised while other sinners can be.

Fourthly, looking at the same point from a different angle, it is sometimes suggested that if adults who are in a same-sex sexual relationship are baptised this means that the Church is in some way endorsing their sexual behaviour. This is not the case. Baptism is not a merit mark for godly behaviour. The reason people are baptised is not because they are good and therefore deserving of a reward, but because they not good and need God’s grace given in baptism in order to become good.

if the members of a church think baptising someone in a same-sex sexual relationship is an endorsement of their behaviour then this a reason for giving them further instruction about the meaning of baptism. It is not a reason for not baptising the person concerned.

Fifthly, as John Bunyan makes clear in The Pilgrim’s Progress, the Christian life is a journey from this life to the next in which we are meant to grow in holiness of life through the grace of God and prayers, guidance and support of our Christian brothers and sisters. If we feel (as we should) that someone in a same-sex sexual relationship, or anyone else, needs to grow in holiness of life then we need to get them started on the Christian journey and this means encouraging them to be baptised rather than refusing them baptism.

Moving on to the issue of the baptism of children, those who take this second approach would say that there are also a number of reasons why it is right to baptise children for whom those in same sex sexual relationships have parental responsibility.

First, these children need the gift God offers in baptism just as much as any other child. They too need to die with Christ and rise to new life in him. This means we have an obligation to baptise them if this is at all possible.[13]

Secondly, there is no reason why it is impossible to baptise such children:

  • They can receive baptism with water in the name of the Trinity;
  • The baptismal promises can be made on their behalf by their sureties;
  • They can ratify and confirm those promises when they reach the years of discretion and live a baptised life of repentance and faith.

Thirdly, it is not the cases that baptising a child involves affirming the status of the relationship between the adults who are responsible for them. Infant baptism is about the relationship between a particular child and God, not the about relationship between the adults who are responsible for them.

Fourthly, just as the moral unworthiness of the minister who performed a baptism would not hinder its spiritual efficacy [14] so also the moral unworthiness of those speaking for a child at their baptism would not hinder its spiritual efficacy either. What matters for the efficacy of baptism is that the promises are objectively made and that the child concerned ratifies and confirms them when they are old enough to do so.

Fifthly, the idea that a child would be implicated in any sin committed by those adults who took part in their baptism goes against the clear biblical teaching that people are responsible for their own sins and not for the sins of others. ‘The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself’ (Ezekiel 18:20).

Finally, we cannot know for certain how any couple with parental responsibilities (whether in a same-sex relationship or otherwise) will bring up a child. However, what we do know is that if baptism is refused a child will definitely not be brought up to ratify and confirm the baptismal promises for themselves since they will never have been made.

It should be noted that taking position B, like those taking position A, would use the time of instruction allowed under Canon B22:4 to explain to those seeking baptism why same-sex sexual relationships are incompatible with faithful Christian discipleship.

It should also be noted that approach B would not involve accepting godparents who were in same-sex sexual relationships. Canon B 23:2 states: ‘The godparents shall be persons who will faithfully fulfil their responsibilities by their care for the children committed to their charge and by the example of their own godly living.’

Those in same-sex sexual relationships cannot not provide an example of ‘godly living’ and for this reason must be regarded as disqualified from being godparents.

The issue of what goes in the baptism register.

For those who take approach A, the issue of who should be listed as parents in the baptism register simply does not arise.

For those who take approach B, the question of what should go in baptism registers when two people of the same sex have parental responsibility is a legal rather than a theological issue. However much they may feel that children should have two parents of the opposite sex, the fact is that there are same-sex couples who have shared parental responsibility for children and who are therefore legally their mothers or fathers. What goes in the baptism register merely reflects this legal reality. It does not endorse the family situation involved.

Conclusion.

The current position of the Church of England is to baptise both adults in same-sex sexual relationships and children for whom parents in same-sex sexual relationships have parental responsibility.

As we have seen, the argument put forward by the House of Bishops that the sincerity of the convictions of lay people in same-sex relationships justifies the current practice is unconvincing. We have to start from the basis that, whatever those in same-sex sexual relationships believe, such relationships are objectively sinful.

As we have also seen, those who start from this basis take two different approaches to the question of whether those in same-sex sexual relationships, or the children for whom they are responsible, can rightly be baptised.

What those in the Church of England need to do is think carefully about which of these positions is the correct one so that an agreed position can be developed which reflects biblical truth. Both approaches involve potentially serious spiritual consequences if they are wrong, and so we cannot say it does not matter which one the Church of England follows. The truth about the issue matters and so we need to reach agreement about what the truth is.

It should be noted, however, that even if approach B is the correct approach the reasons for holding it have absolutely nothing to do with theological acceptance of same-sex sexual relationships or support for same-sex marriage.

This means that contrary to what is said by Bishop David, there is nothing ‘ironic’ about the fact that baptism ‘is open to all whereas lawfully married same sex couples are barred from both a church marriage and the possibility of ordination.’ The Church of England would being perfectly consistent if it continued to say in accordance with approach B that it will baptise people who are in same-sex sexual relationships and those children for whom they have a parental responsibility, but that it will not ordain or marry them.

[1] David Gillett, Does the Bible Really Say…that Baptism Should be Withheld from Some People?’, 12 July,

2019, at https://viamedia.news/2019/07/12/does-the-bible-really-say-that-baptism-should-be-withheld-from some-people/.

[2] Human biology means that no child has two biological parents of the same sex, what is possible however, is for two people of the same sex to have legal parental responsibility for a child.

[3] House of Bishops, ‘Civil Partnerships-A pastoral statement from the House of Bishops of the Church of England’, 2005, at https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2017-11/House%20of%20Bishops%20Statement%20on%20Civil%20Partnerships%202005.pdf.

[4] House of Bishops, ‘House of Bishops Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage,’ 2014 at  https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/news/house-bishops-pastoral-guidance-same-sex-marriage.

[5] The Legal Advisory Commission of the General Synod, ‘Baptism of Children: Parental Responsibility and Same Sex Couples,’ 2017, at https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2017-12/registration%20of%20baptisms%20final.pdf.

[6] For the evidence to support this point see Brown, Gagnon and Ian Paul, Same Sex Unions – The Key Biblical Texts (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2014).

[7] ‘Homophile’ here means ‘homosexual’

[8] ‘Heterophile’ here means ‘heterosexual.’

[9] The House of Bishops, Issues in Human Sexuality (London: Church House Publishing, 1991), p. 41.

[10] It is interesting to note that the subsequent paragraphs of Issues in Human Sexuality (5.7-5.10) the question of respect for conscientious conviction disappears in relation to bisexuality, promiscuous same-sex relationships and paedophilia. These are seen as wrong in all circumstances with nothing being said about the possible conscientious convictions of the people involved. What Issues never explains is why conscienceshould be respected in relation to some forms of behaviour and not others.

[11] Common Worship, Holy Baptism, the Decision.

[12] Thomas Cranmer, Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum 2:18 in Gerald Bray (ed), Tudor Church Reform (Woodbridge: Boydell Press/Church of England Record Society), 20005). p.201.

[13] It is because it is important to baptise children if at all possible that the rubric for infant baptism in the Book of Common Prayer and Canon B22 both prohibit a minister from refusing to baptise an infant within their cure. This would include refusing to baptise a child because of their family circumstances.

[14] See Article XXVI.

Why the Bible does talk about homosexuality… and what it says.

In the first article in the ViaMedia.News series ‘Does the Bible Really Say….?’, Dr Jonathan Tallon considers the question ‘Does the Bible Really Say…Anything at All about Homosexuality as we Understand it Today?’[1]

Dr Tallon’s argument.

Dr Tallon notes that there are passages in the New Testament that might appear to show that the Bible clearly prohibits homosexual activity. He writes:

‘… you open your Bible and are reading 1 Corinthians 6:9, and see a reference to ‘homosexual offenders’ (NIV) or ‘homosexual perverts’ (GNB). You read Romans 1:27, and note the reference to ‘men committing indecent acts with other men’. And it seems that the plain meaning of Scripture is staring you in the face.

Maybe you’d like it to be otherwise. Maybe you don’t understand what’s so wrong. But it appears to be the plain meaning of Scripture. The Bible appears to say that being homosexual – gay or lesbian – is not OK.’

However, Dr Tallon then goes on to argue that this reading of Scripture is mistaken because it is in fact misleading to use the modern term ‘homosexuality’ when talking about what is said in the New Testament.

He gives three reasons why this is the case.

First. when we use the term ‘homosexual’ we mean someone who has a sexual orientation to a member of their own sex. By contract ‘the ancient world was generally uninterested in questions of orientation, but much more concerned with questions of action.’

Secondly, in the ancient world ‘there was no term for ‘homosexual’. Terms used defined who was the active, dominant person and who was classed as the passive, submissive participant.’

Thirdly, if anyone referred to an adult male having sex with another male (as in Romans 1:27) the assumption would not be that that male was another adult:

‘…. the natural assumption would be that the males were boys. Other assumptions would include that no equal relationship was involved, and that the boy would be humiliated. But what would not be assumed is that the adult only had intercourse with boys; the listener would expect the man also to have intercourse with women (slaves and prostitutes) and also would assume that the man was married (or would be married in the future).’

What this all means is that our idea of consenting sex between two adults with orientation towards a member of their own sex cannot be read back into the New Testament.

Dr Tallon’s overall conclusion is that:

‘In our modern world, ‘homosexuality’ might conjure up images of loving couples of the same gender in long term relationships. However, the world of the New Testament had no word for ‘homosexuality’ and precious little visibility of anything like our image today. For the ancient world, male-male sex meant pederasty, it meant abuse, it meant rape, it was something married men did, and it often involved slaves or prostitutes or slave prostitutes. Do condemnations of that mean that we have to condemn loving, faithful relationships now? What is clear, however, is that the Bible doesn’t really say anything at all about homosexuality as we understand it today.’

The problems with Dr Tallon’s argument.

Dr Tallon’s argument is a re-presentation of an argument previously put forward by Robin Scroggs [2] that same-sex activity in the first century and homosexuality today are two different phenomena and that therefore we cannot apply the New Testament’s rejection of the former to loving, committed homosexual relationships today.

The argument goes like this.

  • Homosexuality today means loving couples in long term relationships;
  • Same sex-relationships in New Testament times meant married men engaging in violently abusive pederasty
  • Therefore, when the New Testament condemns the latter it is not talking about homosexuality as we know it today.

There are three major problems with this argument.

Homosexuality in the ancient world and today.

The first problem with this argument is that it misrepresents both the nature of homosexuality today and the nature of same-sex activity in the ancient world.

The reason it misrepresent the nature of homosexuality today is that the definition of a homosexual is someone who is ‘sexually attracted to someone of their own sex.’[3]  Homosexuality is the same-sex sexual activity engaged in by such a person and (as in the case of heterosexual sexual activity) this can take many different forms. Loving monogamous same-sex relationships are one form, but they are not the only form that exists today. There are also open relationships, serial relationships and casual one night stands, sexual activity involving pederasty, abusive sexual activity and sexual activity involving prostitution and even sex slavery. There are also married men (and women) who engage in homosexual sexual activity.

The reason it misrepresents the nature same-sex activity in the ancient world is that it fails to acknowledge the evidence we have that a wide range of different forms of same-sex sexual activity were also known about in the ancient world. This is a point that is made by Mark Smith in his 1996 article ‘Ancient Bisexuality and the interpretation of Romans 1:26-27’ in which he rebuts the argument of Scroggs. [4]

Smith notes that in addition to relationships between men and boys there are also examples from the ancient world of relationships between young adult males, between adult males of unequal age, between adult males of roughly equal age, between adult males who alternated in the roles of ‘lover’ and ‘beloved,’ and between bisexuals and members of both the same and the opposite sex, with many of these relationships being characterized as stable and long lasting and even as lifelong ‘marriages.’

In addition, there were also female same-sex relationships, which were often relationships of mutual consent in which there was no distinction between those playing the active or passive role, no distinction of age between the women involved and no question of exploitation.[5]

What the evidence cited by Smith indicates is that the forms of same-sex relationships that were known in the ancient world were actually fundamentally similar to those known today. Male pederasty was not the only thing that was known about and in fact there was ‘a decline in the prominence of pederasty in the last three centuries preceding Paul.’

The prominent pro-gay Church historian John Boswell has written that an:

‘… equally distorting and even more seductive danger for the historian is posed by the tendency to exaggerate the differences between homosexuality in previous societies and modern ones. One example of this is the common idea that gay relationships in the ancient world differed from their modern counterparts in that they always involved persons of different ages; an older man (the lover) and a young boy (the beloved).’

Like Smith he argues that there is plenty of evidence that same-sex relationships between adult males (such as Parmenides and Zenon who were sixty five and forty) were both common and known about in the ancient world. [6]

What this means is that the idea that the New Testament must have been referring to pederasty because this was the only thing people knew about is unsustainable.

The New Testament references to same-sex sexual activity

Secondly, there is no evidence to support the argument that when the New Testament refers to same-sex sexual activity it is only, or primarily, pederasty that is in view.

There are two types of reference to same-sex sexual activity in the New Testament.

The first is the references to porneia in texts such as Mark 7:21, Acts 15:20, 1 Corinthians 6:18 and Galatians 5:19. Porneia was a comprehensive term which was used to refer to all sexual acts outside of heterosexual marriage[7] and therefore in telling Christians to ‘shun porneia’ (1 Corinthians 6:18) the New Testament declares all forms of same-sex sexual activity (and not just pederasty) off limits.

The second is the specific references to same-sex sexual activity in Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10 and Jude7.  These texts take a strongly negative view of both female and male same-sex sexual activity (Romans 1:26-27, 1 Timothy 1:10), of both passive and active male same-sex activity (1 Corinthians 6:9) and of homosexual lust (Jude 7). What none of these texts do, however, is refer specifically to pederasty.in the way that, for instance, the Jewish writer Philo does. The specific vocabulary used to describe pederasty is not used in these texts. [8]

In Romans 1:27 Paul’s use of the ‘males’ is not, as Dr Tallon suggests, a reference to pederasty. Rather, like the reference to ‘females’ in the previous verse, it is an intertextual reference back to Genesis 1:26-28. What Paul is saying is that same-sexual relations are an example of the males and females created by God to be his image bearers acting in a way that both nature and Scripture show is contrary to the way they were created to act. Human beings were created by God to have sexual intercourse within marriage with the members of the opposite sex and by this means to ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ Same-sex sex involves a turning away from this calling.[9]

The reasons why the New Testament takes a negative view of same-sex sexual relationships.

Thirdly, the theological reasons why the New Testament rejects same-sex sexual activity apply to all forms of such activity (in both the ancient world and today) and not just to pederasty. The criteria applied in the New Testament to sexual relationships are whether such relationships are in accordance with the order of things established by God at creation (as recorded in Genesis 1 and 2) and whether they are in accordance with the law God subsequently gave to Israel as a reflection of that order.

The reason the New Testament takes a negative view of all same-sex sexual relationships is that they fail on both counts. They go against the created order put in place by God (Romans 1:26–27) and they are contrary to the Ten Commandments and the teaching of Leviticus 18 and 20 (1 Corinthians 6:9–11, 1 Timothy 1:10). For the New Testament writers therefore the question of whether or not a same-sex sexual relationship is a committed and loving one is theologically irrelevant, in the same way it would be in the case of an incestuous or adulterous relationship. For them, all such relationships are inherently wrong in all circumstances by dint of the very fact that they involve sexual activity between those of the same sex.

Conclusion.

As we have seen, homosexuality means sexual activity between two persons of the same sex. Such activity existed in New Testament times just as it does today, and, just like today, it existed in a variety of forms. We can therefore rightly say that homosexuality existed in New Testament times.

What we can equally rightly say is that all forms of homosexuality are both referred to and rejected by the writers of the New Testament, both implicitly in their references to porneia and explicitly in their specific  references to particular forms of homosexual activity.

Therefore the answer to the question ‘‘Does the Bible Really Say…Anything at All about Homosexuality as we Understand it Today?’ is ‘Yes, it does. It says that homosexual practice is wrong. It is against creation and the law of God.’

[1] Jonathan Tallon, ‘Does the Bible Really Say…Anything at All about Homosexuality as we Understand it Today?, 17 May 2019 at https://viamedia.news/2019/05/17/does-the-bible-really-say-anything-at-all-about-homosexuality-as-we-understand-it-today/

[2] Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality: Contextual Background for Contemporary Debate (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983).

[3] ‘Homosexual,’  The New Oxford Dictionary of English  (Oxford: OUP, 1998) p.879.

[4] Mark Smith, ‘Ancient Bisexuality and the interpretation of Romans 1:26-27’ (Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 64, 1996), pp 223-256.

[5] For lesbianism in the ancient world see Bernadette Brooten, Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1996).

[6] John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1980), p.28.

[7] See James Moulton and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament Illustrated from the Papyri and Other Non-Literary Sources (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), s.v. ‘porneia’, H. Reisser, “Porneuō,” in Colin Brown (ed.), The New International Dictionary of the New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975) 1:499 and John Nolland, ‘Sexual Ethics and the Jesus of the Gospels,’ (Anvil, Vol26:1, 2009) , pp. 21-30.

[8] For an overview of the interpretation of these texts see Martin Davie, Studies on the Bible and same-sex relationships since 2003 (Malton: Gilead Books/CEEC, 2015).

[9] For the intertextual echoes of Genesis 1 in Romans 1 see Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), pp.289-293 and Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 1:  Chapters 1-8, (London: SPCK: 2004), pp.20-24.

Why creation is ‘straight.’

In the latest essay in the ViaMedia.News series ‘Does the Bible Really Say…?’, Dr Simon Taylor looks at the question ‘Does the Bible Does the Bible Really Say…that Creation is Straight?’[1]

Dr Taylor’s argument.

In the introductory paragraphs to his essay Dr Taylor explains that the idea that ‘creation is straight’ is his shorthand for the ‘complementarian’ understanding of creation ‘in which human beings are made and meant to be male and female.’

Dr Taylor then further explains that he is ‘far from convinced that this is the right way to be reading Scripture’ and that in his essay he is going to ‘look at some key Biblical texts and then to see if a larger Biblical vision might be offered.’

The three biblical texts that he looks at are Genesis 1:27-28, Genesis 2:18-24 and Matthew 19:3-9.

Genesis 1:27-28.

On Genesis 1:27-28 Dr Taylor notes that:

‘A complementarian reading of this passage attends carefully to the way in which the image of God structures humanity as male and female.  Combined with the injunction to procreation, this is then taken to require heterosexual relationships.’

He then identifies three ‘serious difficulties with this approach’:

‘First, it is in danger of requiring couplings of male and female in order to display the image of God.  What then do we have to say for single people?’

Second, it takes the command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ as a command for every couple, rather than for the species as a whole.  What then of the childless, the elderly and the infertile?

Third, it loses the way the passage insists that the image of God is seen in women as well as in men. This has not, through the history of humanity and the history of the Church, been something seen as obvious.  Sexual relationships have been constituted as expressions of male power, underwritten by a male God.  Genesis 1.27-28 begs to differ.’

Genesis 2:18-24.

On Genesis 2:18-24 Dr Taylor comments that this text: ‘… has also been taken to support a complementarian account of human relationships.  The ‘one flesh’ that derives from marriage is taken to require a man and a woman.’ As before, he identifies three problems with this complementarian reading:

‘First, the ‘one flesh’ that Genesis 2.24 speaks about is an expression of kinship, not of sexual relations.  ‘One flesh’ could be polygamous, and often is in the Old Testament.  Despite this being the ‘go-to text’ for monogamy, the marriage envisioned is not simply the pairing of a man and a woman.

Second, the order in which the man and woman are created has been taken to imply the subordination of women, 1 Timothy 2.11-15 being a prime example.  Yet we have already seen that Genesis 1.27-28 is seeking to deny such subordination.

Third, Genesis 2.24 needs to be read as part of the whole story, which begins at verse 18.  To read the final verse in isolation misses the whole point of the story.

In the story of Genesis 2, God creates the animals so that the ‘man’ (adam), the first human person, should not be alone. As the first human names the animals, none is found to be a helper and partner. But there is a real sense that they might have been.  Then God creates woman from the flesh of the first human.  Again, the human names the creature woman (‘ishah) and names himself man (‘ish).

The force of the story is on the consent of the person, and the delight of the man in the woman.  Consent and delight are what structures this story.  Gareth Moore writes of “the final bankruptcy of the compulsory heterosexuality interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve.  Not only does it misrepresent God as one who imposes his will regardless of human delight, but … it completely undermines the dynamic that leads to the creation of Eve.’’ [2]

Matthew 19:3-9.

On Matthew 19:3-9 Dr Taylor explains that those who take a complementarian position hold that these verses give:

‘…. the authority of Jesus to their interpretations of Genesis, and does so clearly in a discussion about marriage.  When Jesus speaks of marriage, they argue, he does so in a complementarian model of male and female.’

However, as he sees it:

‘….nothing in this passage that changes the force of the readings I have offered of the two Genesis passages.  Indeed, I would be happy to see Jesus reinforcing the assertion of Genesis 1 that women are fully human, and the assertions of Genesis 2 that consent and joy are at the heart of all human relationships.  Nothing that Jesus says in Matthew’s account need be understood as requiring a complementarian account of human beings.’

A larger biblical vision.

In the final section of his paper, in which he sets out a ‘larger biblical vision’ he criticises N T Wright’s view that the Bible is

‘an entire narrative which works with this complementarity so that a male-plus-female marriage is a signpost or a signal about the goodness of the original creation and God’s intention for the eventual new heavens and new earth.’ [3]

He comments that his readings of the three biblical passages he has looked at explain why he thinks Wright is wrong to read the Bible as saying that humans are created to be ‘male-plus-female’ and then notes that passages such as Isaiah 62:4-5 and Revelation 19:6-9 which link marriage and the new creation describe God’s people as ‘female, as a bride.’

This last point is significant, argues Dr Taylor, because:

‘If we read from the Scriptures to the people of God without any further thought or insight, we might find ourselves requiring all God’s people to be female.  Rather than arguing about whether women can take leadership roles in the Church, or whether we can have women bishops, we might find we need books and articles explaining why men can be Christians at all.  The image of the bride is gendered.

Yet I am not aware of any theologian or interpreter of the Bible that has taken that image as determining the gender of individuals within the people of God.  Even if the creation narratives do speak of a complementary relationship between male and female at the heart of creation, it is a quite different theological move to require such a relationship of every individual person or couple within God’s people.’

To put it simply, just as Isaiah and Revelation don’t require all God’s people to be female so also the creation narratives do not require everyone to be in a relationship with someone of the opposite sex.

A better approach to reading the Bible, Dr Taylor suggests, is to start from Ephesians 2:13-22. This passage tells us that:

‘At the heart of God’s purposes is the bringing together of all things and all people, however far off they may once have seemed.  The death of Christ brings everyone into one new humanity, putting hostility to death.  All are reconciled to God in one body, and no one is a stranger or an alien, but citizens and saints.’

The picture given in this passage, he writes:

‘… is one of the fullness of God and of creation, with all things reconciled and built together into a place where God can live.  There is difference, but it is reconciled, no longer requiring hostility between different groups.  And there is a wide range of difference that has been reconciled: male and female, Jew and gentile, married and single, different races and nations, people of different sexualities and different gender identities.’

Dr Taylor’s final conclusion is that:

‘The Bible calls us to a bigger and fuller vision of God and his creation.  But that vision is not structured by human relationships, but by Christ in whom ‘the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God’ (Ephesians 2.21-22).

Complementarian readings of Scripture are in danger of getting this the wrong way round, which results in structuring Christ around human relationships.  To limit the Biblical vision to a simple ‘male-plus-female’ is to limit the creative and reconciling power of God.

Creation is not straight, it is full of difference, all of which is reconciled into one new humanity through Jesus.’

What are we to make of Dr Taylor’s argument?

Genesis 1:27-28

Looking at Genesis 1:27-28 first of all, the text clearly does say that God structured humanity as male and female: ‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and  female he created them’ (Genesis 1:27, the same point is repeated in Genesis 5:1-2). It also clearly links the way that God has structured humanity as male and female to the command to ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28). It is because human beings are male and female that they can be commanded to be fruitful and multiply. Sex (as in the difference between male and female) and sex (as in the act of sexual intercourse leading to the procreation of children) go together.

However, this does not mean that single people are not made in the image of God. Someone is made in the image of God as a male or female human being, not as part of married couple. Genesis 1 does not suggest that people becomes God’s image bearers only when they get married.

The command to be fruitful and multiply is a command to human beings in general, and obeying this command is an integral part of what marriage is about. As the Christian tradition has always insisted, the procreation of children is a central part of what marriage is for. To use the traditional language, it is one of the ‘goods’ of marriage. We can see this in Genesis 2-5 where Adam and Eve are brought together by God in the first marriage and it is in this God given context that they then obey the command to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 4:1, 2, 25, 5:3).

However, this does not mean that childless couples, or those incapable of having children, are not truly married. The key questions about childless marriages are (a) whether their form of relationship is one that would have led to children being born in the absence of accidental factors such as age or infirmity, and (b) whether the couple would welcome any children granted to them by God as a result of their union? If the answer to both questions was ‘yes’ then a childless marriage would fall within the scope God’s intentions for marriage. The couple would be seeking to live as God has ordained. That is why in the Bible the childless marriages of Abram and Sarai (Genesis 12:2, 18:11) and Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:7) are still described as marriages.

Dr Taylor’s last point, that a complementarian reading of Genesis 1 loses sight of the fact that the text says that women are made in the image of God just as much as men, is completely baffling. Why would the claim that Genesis 1 says that God created human beings as male and female and that fulfilling the command to be fruitful and multiply requires relationships between men and woman imply that women are not made in God’s image?  This simply does not follow.

It may indeed be the case that historically sexual relationships have been viewed in terms of the exercise of male power, as Dr Taylor says, but there is nothing in a complementarian reading of Genesis 1 that leads to this view.

Genesis 2:18-24

The first point to make in regard to Dr Taylor’s reading of this text is that he is mistaken when he argues that ‘one flesh’ implies kinship rather than a sexual relationship. Flesh is used in Scripture to mean kinship, but in Genesis 2 the reference to ‘one flesh’ in 2:24 references back to the statement by Adam in the previous verse following the creation of Eve: ‘this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.’ The one flesh union between a man a woman in marriage is seen In Genesis as the coming together of the two separate halves of the human race (the two elements of human flesh) in a sexual union that will enable procreation and thus the fulfilment of the command to ‘be fruitful and multiply.’

Furthermore, the relationship envisaged in Genesis 2:24 is monogamous rather than polygamous. The paradigmatic relationship ordained by God between Adam and Eve is a monogamous one and in similar fashion in Genesis 2:24 a man ‘cleaves to his wife’ not ‘wives.’ Polygamy does not come into the picture until we get the story of Lamech in Genesis 4:17-24 in which Lamech having multiple wives is a demonstration of the spreading effects of sin after the fall.

Secondly, there is not, as he seems to suggest, a link between a belief that ‘one flesh’ refers to a sexual union between a man and a woman and a belief that women are (or should be) subordinate to men. The two beliefs are entirely distinct, which is why numerous Christians who take an egalitarian view of the relationship between women and men continue to understand ‘one flesh’ in a traditional way.

It should also be noted that holding that there is a God given order in the relationship between men and women does not mean holding that women are not equal in their humanity to men. Thus Geoffrey Bromiley comments on Genesis 2:

‘The male has a certain priority in this relation, for the woman is taken from the man and not the other way round. Yet priority is not the point of the story. The equal humanity which is needed for full companionship takes precedence. As in the Trinity the Father, as the fount of deity, has a certain precedence over the Son and the Spirit, yet all are equally God in eternal interrelation, so it is with man and woman in the fellowship which God has purposed and created.’[4]

Thirdly, it is simply not the case, as Dr Taylor argues following Gareth Moore, that the text implies that the animals ‘might have been’ a suitable partner for Adam and that what makes the difference with Eve is simply that Adam delights in her rather than them.

Dr Taylor is correct to say that Genesis 2:24 needs to be read in the light of the whole section consisting of verses 18-24. However, what he fails to acknowledge is that Genesis 2 needs to be read in the light of Genesis 1:26-28. In terms of the literary structure of Genesis, Genesis 2 is narrative commentary on what is said in Genesis 1 about God creating humanity as male and female.  Genesis 2 is a story that explains why human beings need to both male and female.

The key statement in the story is God’s statement in v 18 ‘I will make a helper fit for him.’ As Ian Paul notes, the Hebrew word kenegdo translated ‘fit for him’ in the RSV: ‘…has the sense of equal but opposite; it is the kind of phrase you might use to describe the opposite bank of a river, combining both the sense of equality and difference and distinctiveness.’ [5]

In Genesis 2:20 we are told none of the non-human creatures surveyed by Adam were a suitable helper because they were ‘not fit for him.’ They did not meet the criteria of being equal yet distinct. The reason Eve does then fit the bill (and the reason Adam delights in her) is that she is equal as another human being (‘flesh of my flesh, bone of my bones’) but different in that she is a woman rather than another man.

The story is indeed about ‘consent and delight’ but it is consent and delight to God’s good ordering of humanity as male and female.

Matthew 19:3-9.

Dr Taylor once more misses the point of biblical text in his account of Matthew 19:3-9. The text is not about Jesus affirming that ‘women are fully human’ or that ‘consent and joy are at the heart of all human relationships.’ What the text is about is Jesus affirming that God created human beings as male and female, that he created marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman, and that because a married couple are joined together by God human beings should not break their marriage apart.

Contrary to what Dr Taylor asserts, what Jesus gives us in Matthew 19 is a ‘complementarian account of human beings’ since it affirms that ‘human beings are made and meant to be male and female.’

A larger biblical vision.

Dr Taylor’s response to NT Wright is unsatisfactory in two ways.

First, as we have seen, nothing that Dr Taylor has said has called into question the correctness of Wright’s claim that the biblical narrative works on the basis of a God-given complementarity of ‘male-plus-female.’

As the American writer Michael Brown notes ‘the Bible is a heterosexual book’:

  • Every single reference to marriage in the entire Bible speaks of heterosexual unions, without exception, to the point that a Hebrew idiom for marriage is for a man to ‘take a wife.’
  • Every warning to men about sexual purity presupposes heterosexuality, with a married man often warned not to lust after another woman.
  • Every discussion about family order and structure speaks explicitly in heterosexual terms, referring to husbands and wives, fathers and mothers.
  • Every law or instruction given to children presupposes heterosexuality, as children are urged to heed, or obey, or follow, the counsel or example of their father and mother.
  • Every parable, illustration, or metaphor having to do with marriage is presented in exclusively heterosexual terms.
  • In the Old Testament God depicts His relationship with Israel as that of a groom and a bride; in the New Testament the image shift to the marital union of husband and wife as a picture of Christ and the church.
  • Since there was no such thing as in vitro fertilization and the like in biblical times. the only parents were heterosexual (it still takes a man and woman to produce a child) , and there is not a hint of homosexual couples adopting children. [6]

Secondly, Dr Taylor is wrong in conflating the two issues of the metaphorical use of the term ‘bride’ or ‘wife’ to refer to the relationship between God and his people and the issue of whether the complementarity between male and female has to extend to every human relationship.

Because the use of the terms ‘bride’ and ‘wife’ are metaphorical it does not follow that every member of the Church has to be female (any more than the use of the metaphor ‘shepherd’ for God means that all members of the Church are sheep). However, the way that God has created the world, to which the Bible bears witness, does mean that every human being needs to be in some form of relationship with members of the opposite sex, and that marriage (and hence sexual relations) should be between a man and a woman.

The problem with Dr Taylor’s proposal to ground a vision of ‘God and his creation’ in the account of reconciliation in Ephesians 2:13-22 is that this passage does not exist in isolation. It forms part of the bigger biblical canon and has to be read in the light of this fact.

When we read the passage in this context what we discover is that the God to whom Ephesians refers, the Triune God who has reconciled us to himself in Christ, is the same God who created human beings as male and female and who ordained that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Furthermore, the humans whom God reconciles are the human beings whom God has created in this way and for whom marriage has been ordained in this way.

It is therefore a poor reading of Scripture to contrast reconciliation and complementarity as contrasting approaches to understanding what the Bible says. They are two facets of the biblical picture and both need to accepted. We are both those who have been created as male and female and are called to live rightly in the light of this fact and those who have been reconciled to God in Christ.

It should also be noted that the Bible does not talk about the reconciliation of ‘people of different sexualities and different gender identities.’ The Bible does not see ‘sexualities’ in ontological terms as much modern thinking does. From a biblical perspective people are not lesbian, gay, bi, trans, questioning etc. They are simply men or women and called to live as such. Furthermore, the Bible does not think in terms of ‘gender identities’ either. To repeat, in the Bible there are simply men and women.

Conclusion.

It is indeed true, as Dr Taylor says, that ‘creation is full of difference.’ Humans are different from the non-human creation (which is itself hugely diverse) and all humans are different from each other. Nevertheless, ‘creation is straight’ in the sense that the world in which this difference exists is one in which ’human beings are made and meant to be male and female.’

Appended note – those who are intersex.

An obvious objection to what I have said in this paper is the existence of intersex people who, it is claimed, fall outside of the binary divide between male and female.

The first point to note in this regard is that the number of people who are genuinely intersex in the sense that their bodies are a mixture of male and female biology either at the level of their genotype (their genetic constitution) or their phenotype (their observable physical characteristics) is incredibly small – some 0.018% of live births.[7]

It should also be noted that those with the medical conditions involved are not neither male not female, they are a combination of male and female. Furthermore this combination is, medically speaking a disorder of development what Oliver O’ Donovan has called ‘an ambiguity which has arisen by a malfunction in a dimorphic human sexual pattern.’ [8]

However, acknowledgement that such malfunctions exist then leaves us with the task of thinking  about the specific possibilities of vocation for people who live with this defect. How can they live rightly before God as the people they are?

Firstly, it must be emphasised once again that people with intersex conditions are first and foremost human beings made in God’s image and likeness. The Christians United statement is right to declare, ‘We affirm that those who are born as intersex are full and equal bearers of the image and likeness of God and are worthy of full dignity and respect.’[9] Even though the development of their male or female identity has become disordered, people with intersex conditions bear witness to their creation as human beings in God’s image and likeness through the male and female elements that exist in their genotype and phenotype.

Secondly, they, like all other human beings, are summoned to live as people created by God and redeemed by God through Jesus Christ, having faith in the Gospel, loving God and neighbour, and living lives marked by the offering and receiving of friendship.

Thirdly, they, like all other human beings, are summoned to live in a way that reflects God’s creation of humanity as male and female. In cases where there is distinct male or female genotype but where problems have occurred in the development of the corresponding phenotype, the proper way forward would seem to be for them to live according to the sex of their genotype, receiving spiritual and psychological support and (where necessary) medical intervention in the form of reconstructive surgery to help them live more comfortably in their given sex and, when possible, to allow them to have children.208 Like other people they may either be called to marry a member of the opposite sex, or called to serve God through a life of singleness.

In the very rare cases where the genotype has both XY and XX chromosomes and the phenotype has both male and female sexual characteristics (for example both a penis and a vagina) the question of whether it would be proper to live as male or female becomes much less clear cut.

A possible way forward that would bear witness to the truth of who they are would be to live as either male or female (thus responding to God’s general call to humans to live as a man or a woman) while acknowledging the presence of elements of the other sex in their bodily make up. If this way forward were adopted then any marriage would need to be with a member of the opposite sex to that in which they have chosen to live. What would arguably not be appropriate would be for them to live as a non-binary (i.e., neither male nor female) person. This is because the truth about who they are is not that they are neither male nor female, but that the way their biology has developed means that they are both male and female.

M B Davie  25.7.19

[1] Simon Taylor, ‘Does the Bible Does the Bible Really Say…that Creation is Straight?’  18 July 2019 at https://viamedia.news/2019/07/18/does-the-bible-really-say-that-creation-is-straight/.

[2] The reference is to Gareth Moore OP, A Question of Truth: Christianity and Homosexuality (London and New York: Continuum, 2003), p. 143

[3] The reference is to Matthew Schmitz, ‘N. T. Wright on Gay Marriage: Nature and narrative point to  complementarity’, https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2014/06/n-t-wrights-argument-against-same-sex-marriage.

[4] Geoffrey Bromiley, God and Marriage (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), p.3.

[5] Ian Paul, Same-sex unions (Cambridge: Grove Books 2014), p.8.

[6] Michael Brown, Can you be Gay and Christian?  (Lake Forest: Front Line, 2014), pp.88-89.

[7] Leonard Sax, How common is intersex?’, Journal of Sex Research, 1 August, 2002, text at http://www.leonardsax.com/how-common-is-intersex-a-response-to-anne-fausto-sterling/.

[8] Oliver O’Donovan, Transsexualism: Issues and argument (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2007), p.8.

[9] Christians United in Support of LGBT+ Inclusion in the Church, Article 4, text at http://www. christiansunitedstatement.org/.

Why Grace does not destroy nature – a response to Martyn Percy on the Bible and the nuclear family

Professor Percy’s five fold argument.

In the latest instalment of the ViaMedia.News series ‘Does the Bible Really Say…’ series, Professor Martyn Percy addresses the topic ‘Does the Bible Really…Advocate the ‘Nuclear Family?’ [1]

In his article Professor Percy gives five reasons for rejecting the idea that Christianity is ‘right behind the nuclear family.’

First, he appeals to the teaching of Jesus, declaring:

‘Jesus advocated leaving one’s parents for the sake of the Kingdom. The siblings too, got some short shrift from Jesus. He told his disciples to go do likewise, more or less.  Moreover, don’t even think about loitering at your parents’ funerals; there is kingdom work to be done. The dead can bury the dead.’

Secondly, he argues that the Bible ‘contains many patterns of family life’ and that the Old Testament in particular ‘offers us dozens – literally – of ‘family patterns’, which ‘should not necessarily be honoured today.’  As an example, he refers to the story of Rachel and Leah in Genesis 29-30, both of whom are married to Jacob, and both of whom offer him their maids so that he can beget children by them.

Thirdly, he argues that the founders  of four of the world’s great religions, Moses, the Buddha, Mohammed and Jesus were all adopted:

‘Moses was abandoned by his birth mother and left to float in a small coracle in the River Nile, and had the good fortune to be picked up by the daughter of one of the Pharaohs, and nurtured as one of her own.  Mohammed was orphaned at the age of six, or perhaps earlier, and was brought up by his uncle in the ancient city of Makka.  The Buddha’s mother died when he was less than a week old, and he was raised by her sister.  Jesus, of course, according to Christian orthodoxy is not exactly the child of Joseph, since Christian tradition claims no human intervention in his genesis.  Although Mary is clearly his mother, Joseph is not his biological father.’

According to Professor Percy this matters because it places the dynamic of adoption at the heart of these religious traditions.

Fourthly, the early Church based itself not on the pattern of the nuclear family, but on the pattern of an oikos, an ‘extended household incorporating kith and kin, servants, slaves, tutors, workers, dependents and contributors.’

Fifthly, as an oikos the Church was an outward facing body that ‘took to adoption quite naturally’ and adoption is something that is central to the Church’s life:

‘… just as churches, congregations and individuals Christians understand or experience themselves as, in some sense, ‘adopted’ by God (as Paul suggests), so they in turn, find themselves adopting others.’

It is for this reason, Professor Percy contends, that:

‘… the churches, at their best, function like adoption and foster homes.  They welcome the unwelcome; they love the unloved; they embrace the excluded.  The Church was not meant to be a cult or a club for members, any more than the Christian vision for ‘family’ was ever meant to be ‘nuclear’. It wasn’t.

The early church took in widows and orphans. The early church was extensive and open in character.  It embraced slave and free, Jew and Gentile.  It will have embraced married and unmarried, and young and old, citizen and alien.  If the Church wants to recover a vision for mission and evangelism, and plead for the restoration of moral foundations in contemporary society, then appealing to the sanctity of the ‘nuclear family’ is not the way forward.’

How should we respond to this argument?

The first thing to note is that Professor Percy seems to be operating with a very misleading understanding of what is meant by a ‘nuclear family.’

Implicit in his overall approach to the significance of the nuclear family is a contrast between a nuclear family and a body that is open to adopting the outsider. His central argument seems to be that the Church should be the latter rather than the former.

However, the generally accepted definition of a nuclear family is ‘the basic family unit consisting of the mother and father with their children.’ [2] What is important to note is that these children are not necessarily the biological children of the parents concerned. From time immemorial children have become permanent members of nuclear families through adoption with the mother and father becoming their mother and father and the other children in the family becoming their brothers and sisters. Furthermore, nuclear families have often had other people living with them as ‘part of the family’ for greater or lesser periods of time, whether other family members, foster children, or just people in need of a home.

Professor Percy’s suggestion that nuclear families are inherently closed entities which exclude outsiders is thus simply untrue.

Secondly, he is also misleading in his account of the teaching of Jesus. Although he does not give specific references, he seems to be referring to two passages from St. Luke’s gospel.

The first of these references is Luke 14:26:

‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.’

At first sight this appears to be a clear repudiation by Jesus of all family ties. However, this would contradict Jesus’ own criticism in Mark 7:9-13 of those who reject their family responsibilities, and, as George Caird notes in his commentary on Luke, this is not actually what Jesus’ words mean:

‘To hate father and mother did not mean on the lips of Jesus what it conveys to the Western reader…The semitic mind is comfortable only with extremes – light and darkness, truth and falsehood, love and hate -primary colours with no half-shades of compromise in between. The semitic way of saying ‘I prefer this to that’ is ‘I like this and hate that’ (cf. Genesis 29:10-31, Deuteronomy 21:15-17). Thus for the followers of Jesus, to hate their families meant giving the family second place in their affections. Ties of kinship must not be allowed to interfere with their absolute commitment to the kingdom.’ [3]

The second is Luke 9:59-62 where we read

‘To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ But he said to him, ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God’

This again looks like Jesus rejecting the importance of family duties, but as Caird points out, the point of the saying is rather to warn would be disciples:

‘….to reckon with the conflict of loyalties which discipleship inevitably brings. In normal circumstances it is good that a man should have a home of his own in which he can perform his acts of filial piety to his parents, whether in life or in death, and show affection to kindred and friends. All this is part of that family life which God has graciously appointed for his children. But a man must be prepared to sacrifice security, duty, and affection, if he is to respond to the call of the kingdom, a call so urgent and imperative that all other loyalties must give way before it.’ [4]

What this means is that Jesus does not teach that Christians have to leave their parents or reject their siblings. What he does say is that even family ties, vitally important though they are, have to take second place in our loyalties to the demands of God and his kingdom. God has to come even before family if there is ever a conflict between them.

Professor Percy’s second point, that there are many patterns of family life in the Bible and these should not necessarily be honoured today, is true so far as it goes. We are indeed not called to follow dysfunctional forms of family life such as we find in Genesis 29-30. However, we know this because the Bible itself tells us that such forms of family life are a departure from what God ordained at creation

As I noted in my previous article responding to Dr Hayley Matthews:

‘In Genesis God creates human beings in his image and likeness as male and female and commands than to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:26-28). He then establishes marriage between one man and one woman as the family structure through which this command is to be fulfilled (Genesis 2:18-25) and this ordinance remains in place throughout the rest of the Bible.

This means that while it is true that we see lots of different types of households and families in the Bible, when children are not the offspring of a marital relationship between a husband and wife or when a mother or father is not on the scene this always means that something has gone wrong. There is no case in the Bible in which an alternative family structure to a father and a mother and their children is seen as equally desirable. When children are born out of wedlock, or there is a polygamous family structure, or one or both parents are dead and there are thus  widows and orphans, this is a sign of the brokenness of the world stemming from the Fall and not what would have been the case had God’s original intentions for his human creatures been fulfilled.’[5]

However, the existence of such broken forms of family life does not negate the importance of the pattern of family life instituted by God at creation. This pattern remains a key part of God’s provision for human well-being and so Christians need to live within it themselves and to teach and support others to do the same.

Moving on to Professor Percy’s third point, what he says about Moses and Jesus requires important qualification.

First of all, Moses was not ‘abandoned by his birth mother.’  The story in Exodus 2:1-11 is instead about how Moses’ mother and sister ensured that he survived Pharaoh’s threat to kill all the sons of the Hebrews people. The story tells us about how a Jewish family took care of one of its own in the face of the threat of genocide and how this action then became the basis for subsequent deliverance of the Jewish people as a whole. It is thus a story precisely about the importance of family ties.

With regard to Jesus, it is not true that Christian orthodoxy says that there was no ‘human intervention in the birth of Jesus.’ What it says is that there was an indispensable human role in his birth which consisted in Mary providing the egg that was made fertile by God, carrying the resultant baby to term, and giving birth to him when the time came (Luke 1:26-2:7). The traditional title theotokos (‘mother of God’) used with reference to Mary expresses this point by insisting that in his human nature God the Son did have a mother and that that mother was Mary.

The biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus are about how Jesus, who already had a familial relationship with God the Father from all eternity as God the Son, also acquired a human family consisting of his human biological mother, Mary and also a human father, Joseph with siblings then coming along later. Rather than having no family Jesus thus has two.

Turning to Professor Percy’s fourth point, as I also observed last week, it is mistake to argue as he does that the early Church was a household rather than being a family:

‘… it is simply not the case that in the New Testament God creates a new household rather than a new family.  In the New Testament the Church is indeed ‘the household of God’ (Ephesians 2:19), but the form this household takes is a new family in which Christians really are brothers and sisters to each other by reason of their relationship to the same heavenly Father. The difference between this family and normal biological families is that this new family is a result of the supernatural action of God rather than human sexual activity. This point is made explicitly in John 1:12-13:

‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.’[6]

We have already noted that the Bible tells us that Jesus was, and is, a member of two families. He is the eternal Son of God, but also a member of human nuclear family with a mother and a father and brothers and sisters. What the Bible also tells us that all Christians also belong to two families. They are members of their earthly families, but they are also by grace, through adoption (Galatians 4:1-7), members of an eternal heavenly family with God as their Father and Jesus and all other Christians as their brothers and sisters.

Living rightly as a Christians means living rightly as a member of both families. As members of human families Christians are called to love and honour their parents and to love and care for their spouse and their children (Ephesians 5:21-6:4, Colossians 1:18-21, Titus 2:4-5) and as members of the heavenly family they are called also to love God and all their Christian brothers and sisters (1 John 4:7-21).

With regard to Professor Percy’s final point, there is no contradiction between the Church affirming the sanctity of the nuclear family and being an outward facing body ready to welcome everybody regardless of who they are, or the circumstances of their lives.

God has created human beings to live in families consisting of married parents and their children and so it is the calling of Christians to affirm this truth and the consequent importance of everyone living rightly as members of such families. However, God has also created the new supernatural family of the Church and it is the calling of Christians to welcome everyone into this new family and to teach what it means to live rightly as a member of it. That is the point of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.

Conclusion

For Professor Percy, it seems, grace abolishes nature. For him all that matters is the existence of the Church created by the grace of adoption with natural human families totally disappearing from view. However, as St. Thomas Aquinas famously affirms ‘Gratia non tollit naturam, sed perficit’ (grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it).[7] In the case we are considering grace perfects nature because it allows those who are members of natural families to become members of the eternal heavenly family without ceasing to be what they already are.

There are, of course, as Jesus warned us, occasions when we may need to put the requirements of our membership of our heavenly family before membership of our human families, but the latter still remains in place and we are called to honour it as much as possible.

In addition, it is also important to note that when human families are Christian families  membership of the earthly and heavenly families should go together, with the human family acting as what the Christian tradition has called the ‘domestic church,’ in which people are brought up from childhood by their human parents to know the truth about God and what it means to live as his children.[8]

M B Davie 9.

[1] Martyn Percy, ‘Does the Bible Really…Advocate the ‘Nuclear Family?’, ViaMedia.News, 5 July 2019 at https://viamedia.news/.

[2] ‘Nuclear family’, The Chambers Dictionary, 9ed (Edinburgh: Chambers Harrap, 2003), p.1023.

[3] George Caird, Saint Luke (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1963), pp.178-179.

[4] Caird, p.141.

[5] Martin Davie, ‘Why families need fathers and mothers,’  3 July 2019, at https://mbarrattdavie.wordpress.com/.

[6] Davie, ‘Why families need fathers and mothers.’

[7] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, I, 8 ad 2.

[8] This is the vision of family life which lies, for example, behind Luther’s Small Catechism of 1529 which is designed for the father as the head of the family to teach to the household and behind the statement in the Book of Common Prayer marriage service that marriage was ordained ‘for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord and to the praise of his holy name.’

Why families need fathers and mothers

In the latest contribution to the ViaMedia.News series ‘Does the Bible Really Say…’  Dr Hayley Matthews addresses the question ‘ Does the Bible Really Say… that a family needs ‘a Mummy and a Daddy’?’[1]

Dr Matthew’s argument.

Her answer to this question is ‘no’ and she gives six reasons for this answer.

First, she argues that in the Bible there is no mention of the ‘nuclear family’ consisting of a father and mother and their children. Instead people live in multi-generational households consisting of people related by blood and marriage in a variety of different ways plus servant and slaves.

Secondly, in the Old Testament we see ‘God flouting conventional family ties in unexpected ways through his grace’ by choosing to give blessing to people who are not the first born sons (as in the case of Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Joseph and David) and by passing on his blessing through ‘non blood-line outcasts’ (such as Ruth, Rahab and Mary).

Thirdly, in the New Testament,  Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:50 about his true brothers and sisters being those who do the will of his heavenly Father refer not to the creation of a new biological family, but to the formation of a new household in which those who have previously been outcasts are all welcomed as equals and can call God ‘Abba, Father’ (Romans 8:15).

Fourthly, there are three key turning points in the history of Israel which rely entirely ‘upon non-biological family structures,’ namely the adoption of Moses by Pharaoh’s daughter, the adoption of Esther by Mordecai and the gestation of Jesus ‘to an unmarried Mum from Nowheres-ville.’

Fifthly,  ‘There is biblical precedent for… households to take many forms; single parents, adoption, surrogacy, foster-care, blended and wide-ranging extended families, male, female or a mixture of the two.’

Sixthly, the gender of parents does not matter because there are numerous reasons why two parents of different genders may not be on the scene and because child psychology tells us ‘that what children need are orientation, order, exploration, communication, movement, manipulation of objects, repetition, precision, imagination, facing and constructively responding to error ‘ and  ‘None of these things are gender specific.’

Dr Matthews’s overall conclusion is that:

‘Our call, into our own and God’s households are far beyond all-too-brief biological couplings but based instead upon grace, forgiveness, fidelity, steadfastness, gentleness, kindness, self-control, selflessness, a sense of the ridiculous if not of humour and love beyond measure in an ever-growing ripple of relationships that ever broadens into the eternal household from which and to which we are called. That’s what makes a family…’

The problems with this argument.

There are a number of problems with this argument.

First, while it is true that in the Bible people tend to live in extended households this does not negate the existence or importance of nuclear families made up of parents and their children.

The first and foundational family unit in the Bible is a nuclear family consisting of Adam and Eve and their children (Genesis 2:18-5:5) and thereafter the Bible consistently recognises the existence and importance of the familial relationship between fathers and mothers and their sons and daughters. We can see this, for example, in the command to ‘honour your father and your mother’ in Exodus 20:12, in the exhortation in Proverbs 6:20  ‘My son, keep your father’s commandment, and forsake not your mother’s teaching’ and in the instructions given to husbands and wives and their children in the letters of Paul (Ephesians 5:21-6:4, Colossians 3:18-21, Titus 2:4).

Rather than the household being an alternative to the nuclear family, in the Bible the household is the larger domestic and economic unit within which nuclear families still have a distinct and important existence of their own.

Secondly, while it is perfectly true that God can and does bypass first born sons in favour of some other child of the family, none of the examples given by Dr Matthews negate the importance normally given to primogeniture in the Bible, nor do they undercut the importance that the Bible attaches to the biological relationship between parents and children.

If we take the case of Jacob, for instance, we find that Esau, as the first born son of Isaac and Rebekah, would have been the one to receive a blessing from Isaac had he not ‘despised his birthright’ and traded it to his brother Jacob for a ‘pottage of lentils’ (Genesis 25:27-34). For another example, David is chosen to be King of Israel rather than his older brothers because this was a new appointment that was not dependent on family ties and because God, who ‘looks on the heart,’ saw that David rather than his brothers had the qualities needed in a king (1 Samuel 6:1-13). David’s place in his family was irrelevant to the issue.

Thirdly, Dr Matthew’s depiction of Ruth, Rahab and Mary as ‘non-blood line outcasts’ is misleading. Ruth and Rahab are not Israelites, but become part of the people of Israel through their commitment to the God of Israel (Ruth 1:16, Josh 2:8-14  6:25) and both become carriers of God’s blessing because they have children as a result of marriage (Ruth 4:13-22, Matthew 1:5). At the point when the angel comes to her and she conceives Jesus, Mary is a respectable young Jewish girl and even though she is asked to put her reputation and life in jeopardy by giving birth as a result of a supernatural conception, God ensures that she has a husband and Jesus has an earthly father (Matthew 1:18-25). As numerous nativity scenes testify, Jesus’ earthly family (‘the holy family’) was thus a nuclear family consisting of a mother, a father and a child (with other children being added later).

Fourthly, it is simply not the case that in the New Testament God creates a new household rather than a new family.  In the New Testament the Church is indeed ‘the household of God’ (Ephesians 2:19), but the form this household takes is a new family in which Christians really are brothers and sisters to each other by reason of their relationship to the same heavenly Father. The difference between this family and normal biological families is that this new family is a result of the supernatural action of God rather than human sexual activity. This point is made explicitly in John 1:12-13:

‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.’

Fifthly it is true that both Moses and Esther were adopted and that Mary was not married to Joseph when Jesus was conceived. In these three cases God does indeed work through ‘non-biological family structures.’ However, the fact that he does so for specific reasons on the occasions does not negate the importance of biological family structures as the normal means which God has established to take forward his purposes in creation.

In Genesis God creates human beings in his image and likeness as male and female and commands than to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:26-28). He then establishes marriage between one man and one woman as the family structure through which this command is to be fulfilled (Genesis 2:18-25) and this ordinance remains in place throughout the rest of the Bible.

Sixthly, this means that while it is true that we see lots of different types of households and families in the Bible, when children are not the offspring of a marital relationship between a husband and wife or when a mother or father is not on the scene this always means that something has gone wrong. There is no case in the Bible in which an alternative family structure to a father and a mother and their children is seen as equally desirable. When children are born out of wedlock, or there is a polygamous family structure, or one or both parents are dead and there are thus  widows and orphans, this is a sign of the brokenness of the world stemming from the Fall and not what would have been the case had God’s original intentions for his human creatures been fulfilled.

It is true, as the charity Home for Good argues[2], that adoption and fostering are extremely important forms of Christian service that can achieve an enormous amount of good. However, the good that they achieve lies in helping to mend that which has been broken. Were this not a broken world neither adoption nor fostering would be required since all children would be living with their married parents.

Seventhly, Dr Matthews’ reference to the finding of child psychology fails to acknowledge that decades of research evidence clearly shows that both the marital status and the sex of a child’s parents does matter.  As David Ribar puts it:

‘Reams of social science and medical research convincingly show that children who are raised by their married, biological parents enjoy better physical, cognitive, and emotional outcomes, on average, than children who are raised in other circumstances.’[3]

In similar fashion, Michael Nazir-Ali notes:

‘…the mounting evidence that children who grow up with both their parents are, on the whole, better off than children with lone parents or step -parents, whether that is in terms of mental health, educational performance, crime or sexual behaviour. This is not, in any way, to devalue the sometimes heroic effects of loving single parents or step-parents. It is simply to note the importance of biologically-related families against the frantic and increasingly successful efforts to deconstruct them.’[4]

What all this evidence indicates is that pattern of family life ordained by God, in which children are brought up by their married biological parents is the gold standard for child well being and needs to be supported accordingly by both the Church and the state.[5]

Finally, it is not the case, as Dr Matthews suggests, that ‘what makes a family’ are the characteristics of ‘grace, forgiveness, fidelity, steadfastness, gentleness, kindness, self-control, selflessness, a sense of the ridiculous if not of humour, and love.’ For a family to function properly these elements will certainly need to be present, but they are not what makes a family.  A human family is created through biology, marriage or adoption, while God’s eternal family is created through supernatural grace received through faith and baptism.

Conclusion.

Dr Matthews has not succeeded in showing that the Bible does not say that ‘a family needs a Mummy and a Daddy.’  On the contrary, the Bible tells us that the form of family life ordained by God at creation. is one which requires a father and mother. God ordained that human beings should be fruitful and multiply and that this should happen through two people of the opposite sex entering into marriage and having children as a result. Furthermore, while the effects of the Fall mean that this pattern of family life will never be perfect, the evidence we have shows that it is the pattern that is most conducive to human flourishing.

What we can say, therefore, is that the testimony of both Scripture and natural reason show us that human beings need families and these families need fathers and mothers.

M B Davie 3.7.19

[1] Hayley Matthews, ‘Does the Bible Really Say….that a Family Needs a ‘Mummy and a Daddy;?’ at https://viamedia.news/  29 June, 2019.

[2] Home for Good, at  https://www.homeforgood.org.uk/

[3] David Ribar, ‘Why marriage matters for child wellbeing,’ in The Future of Children: Marriage and Child Wellbeing Revisited, Vol 25, No.2, 2015, p. 12.

[4] Michael Nazir-Ali, Faith, Freedom and the Future (London : Wilberforce Publications, 2016), p.126.

[5] For a detailed study setting out the evidence for this claim see Brenda Almond, The Fragmenting Family (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006).