Why the argument for equal marriage undermines itself.

Introduction – the campaign for equal marriage

Last week a new campaign was launched in the Church of England to ‘enable same-gender couples to be married in Church of England parishes.’ The name of this campaign is ‘Equal’ and it describes itself as ‘The campaign for equal marriage in the Church of England.’[1]

The use of the term ‘equal marriage’ by this campaign is not a novelty. It is in fact merely echoing the language used by those who successfully campaigned for the introduction of civil same-sex marriage in England, Wales and Scotland and who are currently campaigning for its introduction in Northern Ireland.

The use of the term ‘equal marriage’ by both secular and religious campaigners for same-sex marriage reflects the force that arguments based on the principle of equality have in British society and across the Western world as a whole. The implicit argument evoked by the use of the word ‘equal’ by campaigners for same-sex marriage runs as follows:

  • Major premise – the principle of equality, enshrined in British law by the Equality Act of 2010, is a basic moral principle which all right thinking people should accept;
  • Minor premise – same-sex marriage is an example of equality;
  • Conclusion – same-sex marriage should be accepted by all right thinking people (including those in the Church of England).

In the remainder of this post I shall explain that this argument undermines itself because the very principle of equality to which it appeals leads to the conclusion that same-sex marriage should not be accepted.

What do we mean by the principle of equality?

As the American writer John Safranek explains, the principle of equality is derived from the basic philosophical principle of non-contradiction. In Safranek’s words, the principle of non-contradiction:

‘… asserts that something cannot be and not be at the same time and under same conditions. For example, a woman cannot be both pregnant and not pregnant at the same time, according to the common understanding of ‘pregnant.’ Similarly an individual cannot simultaneously be and not be in the United States. Although one might speak of the person ‘being’ in both the United States and a foreign country because his image is communicated from there, he is not capable of bilocation, and therefore we are not using ‘be’ in the same sense.’ [2]

Applied to ethics the principle of equality seeks to avoid falling foul of the principle of non-contradiction by treating equally two agents who are in equal situations. To quote Safranek again:

‘…. The principle of equality proscribes treating differently two agents similarly situated in regard to all relevant factors; to do so would be to contradict oneself. The contradiction is that one claiming to act in a principled way thinks agent x deserves z but agent y who is similarly situated does not. It is to treat as unequal two parties judged as relevantly equal.’ [3]

As a good example of what Safranek is talking about, imagine two students who both give equally good answers in an exam. The person marking the exam holds to the principle that students should get the marks their answers deserve. However, he gives student A 80% and student B 30%. By so doing he treats them unequally and therefore contradicts his avowed principle that students should get the marks their work deserves. The work of the two students is ‘relevantly equal’ and therefore the principle of equality holds that they should be treated equally by being given equal marks.

The need for a common standard to establish equality

As Safranek goes on to further explain, in order to decide whether two situations are in fact equal one has to have a common standard of measurement against which to assess them.

‘Equality consists of a triadic relationship. To compare two things as equal or unequal, one needs two objects that can be compared and a standard by which to compare them; to speak of equality in isolation from a common standard is meaningless. Is a paraplegic Caucasian male equal to a Hispanic female track star? The question is unanswerable because, although two objects are being compared, some standard must be offered to compare them. The question of equality cannot be answered until the standard of comparison is stipulated. They are unequal in weight, sex, skin colour, mobility, ability to bear children, and numerous other qualities, but they are equal in being mammalian, human, alive, rational, desirous, and possessing five senses. These two individuals are equal to a census taker, since each counts as one citizen, but unequal to a track coach. Is an acre of land in Paris equal to an acre of land in Detroit? It all depends on whether the metric is area, financial worth, or soil quality. Whether the two are equal depends on the relevant standard, and the relevant standard does not depend on equality, but on other criteria considered important to the one comparing. Once the standard or metric has been established, then equality can be determined.’[4]

The appropriate standard for assessing same-sex marriage

The claim that is made by those campaigning for the Church of England to permit same-sex marriages is that marriages between two people of the same sex are equal to marriages between two people of the opposite sex. Hence the principle of treating equal things equally means that the Church of England should permit both.

However, as we have just noted, in order to determine whether these two types of marriage are in fact ‘relevantly equal’ we have to have a common standard against which to compare them. Since the Church of England holds that marriage was established by God (‘instituted by God in the time of man’s innocency’ as the Book of Common Prayer puts it) it follows that the common standard has to be the form of marriage which God established.

We learn what form of marriage God established from the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 and from Jesus’ teaching about marriage in Matthew 19:2-6 and Mark 10:2-9 which refers back to these creation accounts.

What we learn from these sources is that God established marriage as a permanent and exclusive sexual (‘one flesh’) relationship between one man and one woman which is in principle open to the procreation of children as a fruit of that relationship. When judged by this metric same-sex marriages fall short in two basic respects. They are not a sexual relationship between a man and a woman and they are intrinsically closed to procreation. It follows that they do not conform to the form of marriage established by God and that they are therefore not equal to the traditional, opposite sex, form of marriage currently permitted by the Church of England since this does.

Why same-sex marriages should not be accepted

What this means is that the appeal to equality in support of same-sex marriage being permitted by the Church of England undermines itself. Same-sex marriage is not equal to the form of marriage established by God which the Church of England celebrates. Therefore it should not be treated as if it was, because just as the principle of equality says equal things should be treated equally so also unequal things should not be treated as if they were.

If same-sex marriages are not a form of marriage established by God then what are they? The answer is that they are what the New Testament calls porneia, extra-marital forms of sexual activity that are contrary to God’s will and in which God’s human creatures should therefore not engage. [5]

To re-run the argument set out at the beginning of this post we can therefore say

  • Major premise – the principle of equality, enshrined in British law by the Equality Act of 2010, is a basic moral principle which all right thinking people should accept;
  • Minor premise – same-sex marriage is not equal to traditional marriage and is contrary to God’s will;
  • Conclusion – same-sex marriage should not be accepted by all right thinking people (including those in the Church of England).

M B Davie 16.4.19

[1] For details see the campaign’s website at http://www.cofe-equal-marriage.org.uk .

[2] John Safranek, The Myth of Liberalism (Washington DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2015), pp.43-44.

[3] Safranek, pp.44-45.

[4] Safranek. pp.51-52.

[5] For justification for this point see Martin Davie, Glorify God in your Body (London: CEEC, 2019), ch.8.


A Christian approach to divorce and re-marriage

A new government proposal

The lead story on the BBC news this morning was an announcement by the Ministry of Justice that the Government plans to introduce legislation in Parliament to change the law relating to divorce in England and Wales.

Should the proposals become law, the sole ground for divorce would become the ‘irretrievable breakdown of a marriage’ and the current possibility of seeking divorce on the grounds of adultery or unreasonable behaviour would be abolished. If this happens, then England and Wales will move to a totally ‘no fault’ system of divorce in which the sole criteria for ending a marriage will be that one or both parties in a marriage wish to end it and in which it will be impossible for that desire to be legally challenged by a spouse who wishes the marriage to continue.

Although the current proposals for a change in the law seem to have been driven largely by the legal profession, what is proposed can be seen to be in line with the way in which the thinking of the Church of England about divorce and re-marriage has changed since the 1960’s. A significant feature of this change has been the replacement of a distinction between guilty and innocent parties in divorce with an emphasis simply on the fact that a marriage can be seen to have failed.

There have been two reasons for this change. The first is the perception that ‘it is unwise and may also be uncharitable, for those outside the marriage to attempt to say precisely where the fault lies in any case.’[1] The second is the perception that what really brings a marriage to an end is not simply the performance of certain specific acts (such as acts of adultery) but the fact that the couple involved are no longer able, for whatever reason, to fulfil their marriage vows by providing each other with a relationship of ‘mutual society, help and comfort,’ It is a relationship of love that is at the heart of marriage and when this dies then the marriage dies with it even if it still formally exists.[2]

What the government calls the ‘irretrievable breakdown of a marriage’ and what the Church of England calls the ‘failure’ or ‘death’ of a marriage mean the same thing. The government and the Church of England can thus be said to be ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’ on this matter. Thy have both moved to the position that when a marital relationship can be seen to have broken down then a marriage can rightly be said to have come to an end and divorce (and re-marriage) is thus permissible.

What I want to look at in the remainder of this post is what God thinks of the issue. Does he agree that relationship breakdown is a legitimate reason for divorce? To answer this question I shall look in turn at what God says about the matter in the Old and New Testaments.

What does the Old Testament say?

Genesis 2:24

The relationship ordained by God in Genesis 2:24 is a permanent union. The Hebrew word dabaq which is used to describe this union is the same word used to describe the permanent bond between God and Israel in verses such as Deuteronomy 10:20, Joshua 22:5, and 2 Kings 18:6. Just as God is in a permanent and unbreakable covenant with his people, so also he has ordained that marriage should be a permanent and unbreakable union between one man and one woman.

Malachi 2:13-16

In Malachi 2:13-16 we read that God is opposed to divorce:

‘And this again you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favour at your hand. You ask, ‘Why does he not?’ Because the Lord was witness to the covenant between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Has not the one God made and sustained for us the spirit of life? And what does he desire? Godly offspring. So take heed to yourselves, and let none be faithless to the wife of his youth. ‘For I hate divorce, says the Lord the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless.’

These words tell us that God regards divorce so seriously that he will not accept the sacrificial offerings of the men of Israel who have divorced their wives. Elizabeth Achtemeier comments that:

Israelites married very early, before the age of twenty, and therefore verse 14 speaks of ‘the wife of your youth’ (cf. Prov. 2:17). The thought is that these men have spent years of mutual companionship with their spouses – building their homes, raising their children, facing life vicissitudes together – and then they have abandoned their wives for the sake of other women. It is little wonder that the act is called ‘violence’ (v.16), for it violently injures the well-being, the dreams, the securities, of all involved. (The reference to the ‘garment’ is the man’s symbolic act of spreading his garment over the woman as a sign of his choice of her, cf. Ruth 3:9; Ezek. 16:8). Malachi knows all about the desolation that accompanies the breakup of a family.

He is also certain about God’s attitude: The Lord hates divorce. It is an attitude that God never gets over, according to the Bible, and yet it is a fact rarely considered by divorcing persons. Usually they ask all the wrong questions. When a couple is considering a separation they are likely to ask, ‘Will I be happier?’ ‘Can I make it on my own?’ ‘Will it be better for the children?’ rather than ‘What is God’s attitude to the dissolution of this marriage?’ Here in this prophetic torah, as the ‘messenger of the Lord of Hosts’ (2:7), the prophet Malachi furnishes the reply.[3]

Deuteronomy 24:1-4

Although the Bible thus tells us that God hates divorce, it also recognises that divorce occurs. The Law of Moses seeks to limit the damage it causes by regulating it. We can see this in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which is the key piece of legislation in the Law of Moses regarding the matter since it is the only Old Testament passage that sets out the grounds, procedure, and consequences of divorce.

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 runs as follows:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favour in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter husband dislikes her and writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt upon the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance.’

John Stott notes that this passage ‘neither requires, nor recommends, nor even sanctions divorce.’[4] In technical terms it consists of a protasis, or description of conditions, in verses 1-3 and then in verse 4 an apodosis, a command that comes into play if these conditions are met. ‘If this, then that.’[5] God is not saying that the conditions in verses 1-3 must or should happen, only what must follow if they do.

As Stott says:

‘The law is not approving divorce; what it is saying is that if a man divorces his wife, and if he gives her a certificate, and if she leaves and remarries, and if her second husband dislikes and divorces her, or dies, then her first husband may not marry her again.[6]

The grounds for divorce referred to in this passage are that a husband finds ‘some indecency’ in his wife. What this might mean has been widely debated by ancient and modern scholars, but it seems most probable that it refers to some kind of immodest or indecent behaviour which nevertheless fell short of illicit sexual intercourse.[7] If a man divorces his wife on these grounds, the passage says, he then causes her to become ‘defiled’ (v4) if she marries another man.[8] As Peter Craigie explains, ‘the sense is that the woman’s remarriage after the first divorce is similar to adultery in that the woman cohabits with another man.’[9] Having caused her to become defiled in this way her husband cannot then marry her again because, to quote Craigie again:

‘If the woman were then to marry her first husband, after divorcing the second, the analogy with adultery would become even more complete; the woman lives first with one man, then another, and then, finally, returns to the first.’[10]

This kind of serial quasi-adultery is immoral conduct that will defile the land God is giving to his people. For this reason it is forbidden.

The primary purpose of this piece of Mosaic legislation is, as Chris Wright puts it, to stop a woman being ‘a kind of marital football, passed back and forth between irresponsible men,’[11] but, as Richard Davidson observes, it also points to the truth highlighted in Malachi 2:16 that divorce is contrary to God’s will even when there are grounds for it in the behaviour of a spouse:

‘… within the legislation is an internal indicator that such divorce brings about a state tantamount to adultery and therefore ultimately is not in harmony with the divine will. Though not illegal, it is not morally pleasing to God. Already in 24:4 it is indicated that breaking the marriage bond on grounds that are less than illicit sexual intercourse causes the woman to defile herself, that is, commit what is tantamount to adultery. By providing an internal indicator of divine disapproval of divorce, the legislation is pointing back to God’s Edenic ideal for permanency in marriage. God’s concession to less than ideal situations did not supplant the divine intention set out in Gen 2:24.’[12]

Exodus 21:10-11 is sometimes cited as another piece of legislation relating to divorce and is seen as showing that divorce is permissible if someone deprives their spouse of food, clothing or other marital rights. However, these verses have to do with the very specific situation of a slave taken as a wife who is then neglected when her husband marries a second wife. In this situation the solution laid down is not divorce, but freedom from slavery. As Doherty says, they thus do not provide ‘a general rule for divorce in monogamous marriages.’[13]

Davidson further notes that a good argument can also be made that the slave girl in question was not in fact married to her master since the Hebrew noun ona, translated ‘marital rights’ in the RSV, probably means lodging or shelter.[14] If this argument is correct it makes the passage even less relevant to the issue of divorce and completely undercuts the argument of David Instone-Brewer in his book Divorce and Remarriage that the teaching of these verses provided biblical sanction for divorce if there is a failure to provide food, clothing, or marital love, as well as in cases of infidelity. [15]

What does the New Testament say?

What does Jesus say?

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 forms part of the background to Jesus’ teaching about divorce. All Jewish schools of thought at the time of Jesus agreed that ‘adultery automatically annuls a marriage by creating a new sexual union in its place.’[16] For this reason Jewish law demanded the termination of a marriage if either premarital un-chastity or subsequent adultery was discovered (which is what lies behind Matthew 1:18-19).[17]

It was also agreed on the basis of Exodus 21:10-11 that divorce could take place if either a husband or wife refused food, clothing or conjugal love.

There was disagreement, however, on how to interpret the meaning of Deuteronomy 24:1, which was understood as a command of God through Moses governing the grounds of divorce. The Rabbinic schools of Shammai and Hillel both agreed that divorce could only rightly happen if a husband found ‘some indecency’ in his wife, but what did ‘some indecency’ mean?

The school of Shammai held that it referred to some form of sexual offence falling short of adultery. The school of Hillel, on the other hand, held that it could include anything that caused a husband to be displeased with his wife, including burning his dinner, being quarrelsome, or even the husband losing interest in her because he came across another woman who was more beautiful. In fact, for the school of Hillel, ‘anything that caused annoyance or embarrassment to a husband was a legitimate ground for a divorce suit.’[18]

In Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:1-9 Jesus addresses the issue of divorce in light of this existing Jewish discussion:

Matthew 5:31-32

‘It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.’

Matthew 19:1-9

Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan; and large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?  So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.’ They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?’ He said to them, ‘For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.  And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.’

In these passages Jesus makes four points about marriage and divorce:

1.Jesus teaches that according to Genesis 2:24 those who are married are joined together by God and it is not right for human beings to dissolve this union: ‘What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder’ (Matthew 19:6).

2.  Jesus teaches that even the permission for divorce granted in Deuteronomy is only a divine concession to human sinfulness (Matthew 19:8), following the internal indications in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 that we noted above, and in line with God’s general opposition to divorce in Malachi 2:16.

3. Jesus develops the implications of the teaching of Deuteronomy 24 about the ‘defilement’ of the divorced wife who re-marries by declaring that all forms of divorce and re-marriage result not just in defilement, but in adultery, since they substitute a new sexual union for the union created by God (Matthew 5:31-32, 19:9).

4. Jesus teaches that the only ground on which divorce is permitted is not the refusal of food, clothing or conjugal love, or the existence of something in the wife displeasing to the husband, or immodesty or indecent behaviour, but solely sexual intercourse outside the marital union (porneia, ‘unchastity’, Matthew 19:9). This fourth point is not explicitly made in the records of Jesus’ teaching in Mark 10:9-12 and Luke 16:18, but it is implicit in these other texts since any Jewish hearer or reader would have accepted that adultery was a legitimate ground for divorce unless this idea was explicitly ruled out. What Mark 10:12 does imply, however, which Matthew 19:9 does not, is that a wife can divorce her husband as well as a husband his wife.

It might be asked at this point how the permission for divorce given by Jesus in Matthew 19:9 fits into his overall teaching that because God has created marriage as a permanent union human beings should not bring it to an end. Aren’t these two parts of his teaching inconsistent?[19]

Don Carson helpfully explains that:

‘ …. sexual sin has a peculiar relation to Jesus’ treatment of Genesis 1:27; 2:24 (in Matt 19:4-6), because the indissolubility of marriage he defends by appealing to those verses from the creation accounts is predicated on sexual union (‘one flesh’). Sexual promiscuity is therefore a de facto exception. It may not necessitate divorce; but permission for divorce and remarriage under such circumstances, far from being inconsistent with Jesus’ thought, is in perfect harmony with it’[20]

Carson’s point that Matthew 19:9 does not necessitate divorce needs to be emphasised. As Stott observes, ‘Jesus did not teach that the innocent party must divorce an unfaithful partner, still less that marital unfaithfulness ipso facto dissolves the marriage.’ Indeed, Jesus ‘did not even encourage or recommend divorce for unfaithfulness… Jesus’ purpose was not to encourage divorce for this reason, but to forbid it for every other reason.’[21]

Importantly, as Carson also notes, Matthew 19:9 permits not only divorce but also re-marriage. One tradition of interpretation has held that because the marital union created by God is indissoluble Jesus meant that separation was permissible following adultery, but not re-marriage. However, in the words of Doherty:

‘Matthew 19:9 describes remarriage after divorce as adultery except when it follows sexual immorality. The implication is that remarriage after sexual immorality is not adultery, which must mean that the original marriage is truly ended. But most importantly, in Jesus’s context, divorce meant by definition that you could marry again. The Jewish divorce certificate said simply, ‘You are free to marry any [Jewish] man you wish.’ By permitting divorce after adultery, Jesus permitted remarriage too.’[22]

Equality in regard to divorce and adultery

It is also important to note that just as Jesus’ view of the grounds for divorce was a departure from contemporary Jewish thought so was the equal standing he gave to women in the matter. The prevailing Jewish view was that while men could divorce their wives women could not divorce their husbands and that adultery was something committed by a man against another man or by a woman against her husband. Jesus. however, taught that divorce was possible for women as well as for men and that men could commit adultery against their wives.

We can see this in Jesus’ teaching to his disciples in Mark 10:11-12 where we are told:

‘And he said to them, ‘whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and is she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Jesus’ teaching here only makes sense if  men can commit adultery against their wives and wives can divorce their husbands.

Jesus’ view that women can divorce and men can commit adultery has been the view accepted in the Church ever since. It  forms part of the overall egalitarian sexual ethic of the Church which declares that the same standards of sexual conduct (fidelity within marriage and abstinence outside it) are to be expected of both sexes rather than of women only (which was the prevailing view in the Greco-Roman world in the first century).

What does St Paul say?

In 1 Corinthians 7:10-16 St Paul begins by quoting the general teaching of Jesus as preserved for us in the Gospels that a wife should not divorce her husband or a husband his wife (‘separate’ in v.10 means ‘divorce.’).[23] He then considers an issue which never came up during Jesus’ earthly ministry, namely what should happen when a Christian has a spouse who is an unbeliever and that spouse initiates a divorce:

‘To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, let her remain single or else be reconciled to her husband)—and that the husband should not divorce his wife. To the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.  For the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner desires to separate, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. For God has called us to peace. Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife?’

Speaking with the authority of an Apostle,[24] Paul declares that in this situation, ‘a Christian should not initiate separation just because they are married to a non-Christian. But if the non-Christian leaves, let them, so that you can live ‘at peace’ with others. You don’t need to try to make them stay. When a non-Christian divorces a Christian, the Christian is ‘not enslaved’ (v.15).’[25] As Doherty says,

‘…. the phrase, ‘not enslaved’ in 1 Corinthians 7:15 must mean ‘free to remarry.’ Under Roman law, you obtained the freedom to remarry simply by separating from your previous spouse. This is corroborated by the fact that Paul uses the same word in verses 27 and 39 to say wife and husband are ‘bound’ together, which he contrasts with being ‘free’ to marry (see also Rom.7:2-3). Not being bound means being able to marry.[26]

Three principles unite the grounds on which Jesus and Paul allow divorce and remarriage:

  1. Both sexual immorality and abandonment by an unbelieving spouse violate one of the two fundamental components of marriage (either the ‘leaving and the cleaving’ or the ‘one flesh’ unity).
  2. Both sexual immorality and abandonment leave one party without any other option if attempts at reconciliation are spurned.
  3. In both cases divorce is therefore a last resort and an admission of defeat.[27]

What is the overall message of the Bible about God’s view of marriage, divorce and re-marriage?

Overall the Bible tells us that:

  • God intends marriage to be for life. ‘His intention was and is that human sexuality will find fulfilment in marriage, and that marriage will be an exclusive, loving and lifelong union.’[28]
  • Divorce is never either commanded or commended in Scripture. Even when it can be justified ‘it remains a sad and sinful declaration from the divine ideal.’[29]
  • Under the New Testament dispensation there are two legitimate grounds for divorce: (a) when the marital union is broken by extra-marital sexual intercourse, and (b) when a Christian is deserted by their unbelieving spouse.
  • When divorce takes place on these grounds then re-marriage can be legitimate.[30]
  • Re-marriage in all other circumstances constitutes adultery. In a situation of domestic violence or abuse then separation from the perpetrator is justified (and indeed can be argued to be required if there is danger to a spouse or any children involved), but this does not mean that divorce is justified except on the grounds noted above. We are not authorised to exceed the limits for divorce which God has laid down.

What all this means is that the Church of England was right to move away from the absolute indissolubilist position which it took for most of the twentieth century. The Bible indicates that God permits (though never desires) divorce and re-marriage in the specific circumstances described by Jesus in the Gospels and by Paul in 1 Corinthians.

However, what Jesus and Paul teach rules out the idea put forward by the Church of England and by the government that divorce (and therefore re-marriage) are permissible on the general ground that the relationship of love in a marriage has died, rather than on the specific grounds that there has been an act of adultery, or that a Christian believer has been rejected by their non-Christian spouse.

What are the practical consequences of a Christian position?

So, how should Christians act in a way that is consistent with what God teaches through the Bible on this matter? In general terms they need to bear witness to what God has laid down concerning divorce and re-marriage in both teaching and example. As Andrew Cornes writes,

‘Both are necessary. Teaching without example is hollow. If a church teaches about the lifelong nature of marriage, but its members are divorcing in large numbers and its leadership is doing nothing to help marriages in difficulty nor to discipline those who separate contrary to the will of Christ, then that church will have no impact on the attitudes to marriage of the society around it. And example without teaching is ineffective. If a church has a membership whose marriages are largely stable and yet never speaks of Christ’s command to man and wife not to separate nor his power to sustain even difficult marriages, society will simply imagine that Christians happen to have good marriages but will remain unaware that Christ’s teaching is radically different from their own presuppositions. Teaching and example must therefore be kept together in every church’s witness.’[31]

In more specific terms Christians need to:

  • Accept and teach that God has ordained that marriage should be for life and that, even when permitted, divorce and re-marriage are a departure from God’s intention for his human creatures.
  • Practice the Christian calling to exercise forgiveness and seek reconciliation when marriage gets difficult (‘ Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you’, Ephesians 4:31-32) and encourage and support others to do the same.
  • Separate from an abusive spouse if their wellbeing and those of their children requires it, and encourage others to the same, but seek reconciliation if possible and only divorce on the grounds laid down in Scripture. [32]
  • Only divorce if the conditions in Matthew 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:15 are met through a spouse being adulterous or an unbelieving spouse wanting a divorce, and then only if there is no realistic possibility of reconciliation
  • When divorced, live a godly life as a single person with the requirement for sexual abstinence that this involves.
  • Provide friendship and support to those who are single as a result of divorce, particularly when they are facing the challenges of being a single parent.
  • Only re-marry if they are free to do so because their former spouse committed adultery before the divorce or has subsequently sundered the marriage bond by entering into a new sexual relationship, [33] or because they have been divorced by a non-Christian spouse.
  • Only re-marry in church people who are free to marry under these conditions.

Where re-marriage is possible it still signifies a departure from God’s intention that the first marriage of one or both new spouses should have been life-long. There therefore needs to be some way of giving this truth what Oliver O’Donovan calls ‘institutional visibility’ by marking this truth liturgically. [34]

Since neither the Book of Common Prayer nor the Common Worship rites make provision for this, one way of doing this might be to only allow a service of Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Marriage and to explain to the couple involved the reason for not holding an actual marriage service. What it is not legitimate to do, of course, is to use a service of Prayer and Dedication to bless a new relationship that is in fact adulterous because it exceeds the limits laid down in Matthew 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:15.

Much of the material in this post has been drawn from chapter 9 of Glorify God in your Body, which is a comprehensive study of ‘Human identity and flourishing in marriage, singleness and friendship’ which has been commended by the Church of England Evangelical Council as a resource for the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith project. Details of this study can be found on the CEEC website at http://www.ceec.info/

[1] The House of Bishops, Marriage (London: Church House Publishing, 1999), p.16.

[2] For this latter point see Putting Asunder (London: SPCK, 1966), pp. 33-62 and Marriage and the Church’s’  Task (London: Church Information Office, 1978) pp. 123-135.

[3] Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1986), pp.182-183.

[4] John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today (Basingstoke: Marshalls, 1984), p.262.

[5] See John Murray, Divorce (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1976), p.p.3-8.

[6] Stott, pp.262-263.

[7] S. R. Driver, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Deuteronomy (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,1902), p.271.

[8] The literal translation of the Hebrew is that the woman ‘has been caused to defile herself’ as a result of the action of her first husband.

[9] Peter Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), p.305.

[10] Craigie, p.305.

[11] Chris Wright, Deuteronomy (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996), p.255.

[12] Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), p.397.

[13] Sean Doherty, The Only Way is Ethics- Part 1: Sex and Marriage (Milton Keynes; Authentic Media, 2015), p.103.

[14] Davidson, pp.191-193.

[15] David Instone-Brewer, Remarriage and Divorce (Milton: Keynes: Paternoster, 2011).

[16] R.T. France, Matthew (Leicester and Grand Rapids: Inter-Varsity Press/Eerdmans, 1985,) p. 123.

[17] The Babylonian Talmud, Mishnah Yebamoth 2:8, Sotah 5:1).

[18] William L Lane, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids and London: Eerdmans/Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1974), p.363.

[19] It is this apparent inconsistency that has led scholars to suggest that Matthew 19:9 is not from Jesus, but is a qualification of Jesus’ teaching by the Early Church.

[20] Don Carson, ‘Matthew,’ in Tremper Longman III and David E Garland (eds), Expositors Bible Commentary, vol.9 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), p.417.

[21] Stott, p.267.

[22] Doherty, pp. 113-114. For a detailed presentation of the case that Matthew 19:9 permits re-marriage see Murray pp. 33-43.

[23] For the fact that St. Paul is drawing on the teaching of Jesus see David Wenham, Did St Paul Get Jesus Right? (Oxford: Lion, 2010), pp. 56-6o.

[24] Stott, p.269.

[25] Doherty, p.112.

[26] Doherty, p.112. For a detailed study of 1 Corinthians 7:10-16 and why verse 15 allows remarriage see Murray, op cit. ch.3.

[27] For these points see Craig Blomberg, Matthew (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1992), p. 293.

[28] Stott, p.271.

[29] Stott, p. 271.

[30] It is sometimes argued that the witness of the Early Fathers shows that the early Church viewed the teaching of the New Testament as prohibiting re-marriage after divorce. However, if we look at the teaching of the earliest Fathers, while they do generally reject the re-marriage of wives and guilty male spouses they do not reject all remarriage after divorce in principle (see William Luck, Divorce and Remarriage, Biblical Studies Press, 2013 Appendix F). Furthermore, while we need to take their witness  seriously it has to be compared by the witness of the Bible itself and set aside if it contradicts it.

[31] Andrew Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage (Tain: Christian Focus, 2012), Kindle edition, Loc.7360. Cornes himself holds that marriage is absolutely indissoluble in all circumstances, but what he says in this passage also applies in the case of the position taken in this post.

[32] As Doherty comments (p.120), ‘although it is essential to leave a dangerous situation, to seek professional help, and to separate permanently if the perpetrator of abuse does not repent., I have to say that I cannot see a biblical basis for initiating divorce in such circumstances. Jesus only gave one exception to his  prohibition of divorce and I don’t think we can add to that.’

[33] If adultery makes divorce permissible because it sunders the one flesh marital union then by extension this would be true of a sexual relationship following a divorce. If the marital union was not broken before the divorce it would be at this point.

[34] Oliver O’Donovan, Marriage and Permanence (Nottingham: Grove Books, 1978), p. 20.

A Review of ‘Pastoral Principles for living well together’

What are the Pastoral Principles? 

Following on from the House of Bishops’ pastoral guidance on welcoming transgender people we now also have a set of ‘Pastoral Principles for living well together.’

These ‘Pastoral Principles’ have been produced by the Pastoral Advisory Group, which is a group chaired by the Bishop of Newcastle that was established by the House of Bishops in 2017 to ‘advise dioceses on pastoral issues concerning human sexuality so that we can make explicit our commitment to show the love of Christ to all people, regardless of sexual or gender identity.’ [1]

As GS Misc 1200, ‘The Living in Love and Faith Project and the Pastoral Advisory Group,’[2] presented to the February 2019 session of General Synod explains, while the episcopal members of the Pastoral Advisory Group have been giving advice on pastoral issues referred to them by other bishops, the main work of the Group as a whole has been the production of the Pastoral Principles document. This document was agreed by the House of Bishops at its meeting in December 2018 and has been commended by the House for use in the dioceses and parishes of the Church of England.

GS MISC 1200 goes on to say that the purpose of the document is to:

‘… set out some principles of pastoral practice for how the people of God in the Church of England can live well together within the parameters of its current position on marriage and the different deeply held convictions that individuals and churches hold on these matters.’[3]

It further adds:

‘The Church has been found wanting in its welcome and treatment of LGBTI+ people and much can be done to address this. The Pastoral Principles are about encouraging churches to offer a welcome that is Christ-centred, that sees difference as a gift rather than a problem, and that builds trust and models generosity. The Bishops hope that these principles will go some way toward inspiring individuals and congregations to examine and enhance the quality of their welcome for all who are seeking a spiritual home in which they can flourish.’[4]

The starting point for the Pastoral Principles Document[5] is the claim that the quality of relationships within the Church of England ‘is hindered by six pervading evils’ which it identifies as prejudice, silence, ignorance, fear, hypocrisy and the misuse of power. The readers of the document are

‘…invited to consider whether these are at work in your church community and how your church might…

Acknowledge prejudice

Speak into silence

Address ignorance

Cast out fear

Admit hypocrisy

Pay attention to power.’

The document then declares:

‘Acting on these evils – which are applicable to all people – could be transformative for your church community and for the church as a whole. Together our church communities are called to LOVE:

Listen attentively and openly

Open your heart and mind without judgmentalism

Value everyone’s vulnerability and perspective

Express concern and empathy.’

The main body of the document consists of six sections, each of which gives a brief explanation of why we need to acknowledge prejudice, speak into silence, address ignorance, cast out fear, admit hypocrisy and pay attention to power, and then provides ‘something to ponder’ and ‘some questions to explore together.’

What is good about the document?

The basic point made by the document is one that everyone should be able to agree upon. Prejudice, silence, ignorance, fear, hypocrisy and the misuse of power are indeed evils which exist in the Church today and which need to be addressed and overcome.

Furthermore much of what the document says about addressing these evils is true and helpful. For example, it is true that ‘Central to our faith is the belief that each of us is unique; we rejoice that we are fearfully and wonderfully made by God,’ it is true that the sacraments ‘are a means of God’s grace in living lives of holiness in obedience to God’s call’ and it is helpful to be reminded to avoid ‘the cheap grace that denies the costliness of Christ’s call to his disciples to take up their cross and follow him.’

What is problematic about the document?

However, there is also much that is problematic about the document.

First, the reason why the document is necessary is said to be because ‘The Church has been found wanting in its welcome and treatment of LGBTI+ people.’ What we are not told, however, is who has found the Church wanting and on what basis. Nor are we told why we should believe that what the people who have declared the Church to be wanting say is actually true. What we have is thus a claim about why the document is needed that is neither unpacked nor substantiated.

Secondly, the document fails to define its terms. We are never told precisely what is meant by the key terms prejudice, silence, ignorance, fear, hypocrisy or misuse of power. In addition, there are lots of other terms that are used, but which are never properly explained. For example, the document stresses the importance of ‘authentic relationships’ and ‘deep listening’ but doesn’t explain what these terms mean. The document says that we need to repudiate ‘pastoral practice that is coercive or abusive’ but gives no guidance as to how we can identify forms of pastoral practice that come under these categories. The document suggests that we should ‘encourage vulnerability in our relationships,’ but it does not say what this might mean in practice.

Thirdly, and linked to the previous point, the document never gives any specific lived examples to illustrate what it says. For example it talks about ‘situations where people who might wish to be open about their sexual orientation feel forced to dissemble,’ but does not give any specific examples of situations in which people have felt forced to dissemble. For another example, it talks about the need for ‘a quality and depth of relationships that means that difference is respected and all feel they belong,’ but it again does not given any specific examples to illustrate what this means.

This lack of lived examples matters because it gives the whole document a very abstract tone that will make it difficult for many Christians in the parishes to engage with it.

Fourthly, the document declares that the source of authority for those in the Church of England consists of ‘the Bible and the Church of England’s foundational documents.’ This account of authority ignores the difference in authority between the Bible and these foundational documents, fails to explain which these foundational documents are, and ignores the place also given by the Church of England to the teaching of the Fathers of the Church and to other authorities such as Lambeth Conference resolutions, General Synod motions, Canons, Measures, and guidance given by the House of Bishops.

Fifthly, what the document says about fear lacks honesty and balance. The document states:

‘There is fear about ‘breaking ranks’ and speaking out. There is fear that if one’s personal circumstances are known then friendships may be affected or the validity of one’s ministry may be called into question. There is fear among the clergy of how they may be held to account as they attempt to care. There is fear that a bishop’s known views will colour her or his engagement with their people. These kinds of fear must be addressed because it can corrupt our life together and imprison individuals.’

What is said here is dishonest because what is really being said is that it is a bad thing that clergy are afraid to disclose that they are in a same-sex sexual relationship and are afraid to offer prayers of blessing to same-sex couples, and that bishops are afraid to declare their support for a change in the Church’s teaching and practice on LGBTI+ issues. This is what is meant and so this is what should have been said.

There is also a lack of balance because there is no acknowledgement of the fear experienced by clergy and laity who hold to the Church’s traditional teaching on human sexuality and human identity and who are afraid that they will be attacked as ‘homophobic’ or ‘transphobic’ in consequence and that they will receive no support from the Church when this happens. This is a particularly significant issue for lay people who may well be subject to discipline or even dismissal from their employment unless they are willing to go along with the secular pro LGBT+ agenda.

If fear is a bad thing then this fear needs to be addressed as well.

Sixthly, the document declares that the existence of ‘tensions and difficulties both within and across our church communities’ arising from differences in theology should be seen ‘as a sign of strength rather than weakness in that it reflects our understanding that God’s church is a diverse church, welcoming the diversity of the people that God calls.’ The problem here is that the document seems to give a blanket endorsement to theological tensions and difficulties in the Church of England. What it does not address is why tensions and difficulties arising from a group or groups within the Church rejecting orthodox, biblical, Christian teaching should be regarded in a positive light.

It is certainly the case that the Church needs to be diverse because it is meant to include within itself people from both sexes, all races and all social groups united together through saving faith in Jesus Christ (see Galatians 3:28). However, it does not follow that the Church should therefore have within it a diversity of belief and contain teaching that is contrary to what God has revealed. The one does not follow from the other and the New Testament endorses the one but not the other.

Seventhly, the document insists that good pastoral care of LGBTI+ people must involve giving people ‘space, permission and opportunities to speak if they want to.’ The unanswered question here is what should happen if what they want to say goes against orthodox biblical teaching. Should they still be given space, permission and opportunity to speak even if the result is that the Church gives a platform for falsehood rather than truth, and even if there is a danger of the faithful being confused or misled?

Eighthly, and most significantly, the document puts forward an unduly limited understanding of what it means for the Church to be a community in which people ‘live well together.’ The position taken by the document seems to be that the Church will be a community in which people live well together provided that it deals with the evils of prejudice, silence, ignorance, fear, hypocrisy and the misuse of power and instead practices love in the way that it defines that term. However, the fact that such a view of the matter is too limited can be seen if we engage in a simple thought experiment.

Imagine a church in which there were a group of people who were habitually drunk. Imagine also that the people concerned were completely open and vocal about their drunkenness and received nothing but understanding and affirmation from all the other members of that church, including those in positions of power. In terms of the Pastoral Advisory Group document this would be a church in which people were living well together because none of the six evils they identify would be an issue and the members of the community would be practising love.

The question is, however, whether that church would be living well before God if it simply accepted the presence of habitual drunkenness among its members. The New Testament is clear that drunkenness is something that is incompatible with faithful Christian discipleship (see Romans 13:13, Galatians 5:21, Ephesians 5:18, 1 Peter 4:3). It therefore follows that by tolerating habitual drunkenness the members of that church would be failing to live up to the Church’s basic calling to teach all people everywhere to live as faithful followers of Christ (Matthew 28:19).

Furthermore the members of that church would also be failing to show love. This is because, contrary to what is said on the Pastoral Advisory Group document, love is not just about listening attentively and openly, opening your heart and mind without judgmentalism, valuing everyone’s vulnerability and perspective and expressing concern and empathy.

In the Christian tradition to love someone or something is to discern its nature, delight in its existence, and act towards it in accordance with its existence. To love human beings thus means to discern who they are, delight in who they are, and respond to them accordingly. Because all human beings are made by God to know, love, and serve him, we show love to them when we behave towards them in ways that help them to achieve this purpose. In the hypothetical case sketched out above, loving the habitual drunkards would thus mean challenging them about their behavior and supporting them in seeking to change it. Only thus would they be helped to serve God as they were created to do.

What this thought experiment shows is that living well together as a church involves more than the Pastoral Advisory Group suggests. It also involves challenging forms of behavior that are incompatible with faithful Christian discipleship and supporting the people involved in seeking to change the way they live.

In relation to LGBTI+ people this mean that a church that wants to live well needs to be willing to not only welcome those with same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria, but also, if necessary, to challenge people about engaging in same-sex sexual activity and gender transition and to support them in abstaining from this kind of sexual activity and living according to their God given sex. Only if it does this will it be a church that truly shows love since only if it does this will it help people to serve God by living in the way he made  them to live.


What all this means is that the Pastoral Principles are deeply flawed as a resource for churches seeking to be welcoming and supportive communities for all people, including those who identify as LGBTI+. Those churches who are conscious that they need help in this area would do better to turn to the Church Audit material available from the Living Out group. [6]

M B Davie 14.3.19

[1] GS Misc 1158, Next Steps on Human Sexuality, at https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2017- 11/gs-misc-1158-next-steps-on-human-sexuality.pdf.

[2] GS Misc 1200, The Living in Love and Faith Project and the Pastoral Advisory Group, at  https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2019-01/GS%20Misc%201200.pdf.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The Pastoral Principles Document is available from the Church of England in hard copy, but is also available online at https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2019-02/PAG-PP-website.pdf.

[6] Living Out Church Audit at https://www.livingout.org/resources/the-living-out-church-audit .

Why marriage and procreation belong together (Part 2)

Dr Meg Warner has now responded to my critique of her article ‘Elephants, Penguins, Procreation and Japanese Knotweed’[1] published on this blog on 20 February with a further article of her own entitled ‘Elephants, Penguins, Procreation and Japanese Knotweed (Part 2).’[2] This blog post is a response to this further article.

In her second article Dr Warner puts forward three objections to my argument in response to her original piece.

Why we need to read the Bible as whole.

First she objects to my statement that the problem with her reading of Genesis 1 and 2:

‘… is that it ignores the basic rule of biblical interpretation that you need to read biblical books as whole entities. Genesis 1 and 2 are part of a much bigger continuous narrative that extends all the way to Genesis 50 and so they have to be read together, and read in the light of this bigger narrative.’

Her response is to say that reading biblical books as whole entities is a rule, but not the only rule to be observed in biblical interpretation, and that care needs to be taken to identify and to honour the multiple voices in the text, and to avoid doing violence to them by adopting a ‘flat’ interpretation that assumes concordance between all elements.’

I entirely agree with her that when reading a biblical text one has to do justice to all the elements it contains and not suppress any of them. However, I would argue that a successful reading of a biblical text is one that not only does justice to all the individual elements of the biblical text, but also does justice to the way in which those elements have been brought together in a particular biblical book and to the way in which they have been brought together to form the biblical canon as a whole.

This is because any successful reading of a text is one that honours the intent of its author and in the case of the Bible this means honouring the intent of the authors or editors of the biblical books and also honouring the intent of God who through the inspiration of the Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:21) is the ultimate author not only of the individual books that are in the Bible, but of the Bible as whole.

My problem with what Dr Warner said in her original article is that she isolates Genesis 1 and 2 from each other, from the rest of Genesis, and from the rest of the biblical canon, and thus fails to offer a successful reading of them.

Why procreation in biblical marriages is something we should emulate.

Secondly, she objects to my claim that the Bible shows that procreation is an intrinsic part of marriage on the grounds that I have not given sufficient attention to the difference between behaviour which the biblical writers want us to emulate and that which simply reflects the ‘ordinary practice of the time’ and which we are not called to emulate.

I agree with her that there is an important distinction between what is recorded in the Bible and what we are called to emulate as Christians today. For example St. Peter’s denial of Jesus is recorded in the Bible, but we are not called to emulate it, any more than we are called to emulate King David’s adultery with Bathsheba.

Where I would disagree with her is that I think there are good grounds for saying that having children within marriage is a form of behaviour that we are called to emulate. These grounds are (a) God’s command to his human creatures to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28) and (b) the account of the marriage of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2-5,which show us that God created marriage to be the context in which this command is to be fulfilled.

Why Adam and Eve were married.

This brings us to her third and most important objection to my argument, which is that she holds that so far from Adam and Eve being a paradigm for marriage there is no evidence that they were married at all. In her words:

‘… far from presenting Adam and Eve as a paradigmatic married couple, Genesis does not even present them as married. There is no record of their marriage in Genesis, any more than Genesis tells us that living creatures and birds married before fulfilling God’s mandate to them to ‘Be fruitful and multiply’

For most Christians this would seem a very odd claim to make. This is because the Christian tradition from earliest times has always seen God’s bringing Eve to Adam and his joyful acceptance of her (Genesis 2:22-23) as the first marriage. John Calvin comments on Genesis 2:22, for example:

‘Moses now relates that marriage was divinely instituted, which is especially useful to be known; for since Adam did not take a wife to himself at his own will, but received her as offered and appropriated to him by God, the sanctity of marriage hence more clearly appears, because we recognise God as its author.’[3]

This reading of Genesis 2:22-23 is seen as supported by the fact that from that point onwards in Genesis Adam and Eve are referred to as husband and wife.

Thus we see the following references to Adam and Eve as husband and wife following on after Genesis 2:22-23:

‘And the man and his wife were naked, and were not ashamed’ (Genesis 2:25).

‘So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate’ (Genesis 3:6).

‘And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden’ (Genesis 3:8)

‘To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’ And to Adam he said ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life’ (Genesis 3:16-17).

‘The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living. And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them’ (Genesis 3:20-21).

‘Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord’’ (Genesis 4:1).

‘And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth, for she said, “God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel, for Cain slew him’ (Genesis 4:25)

I have quoted the RSV here, but other English translations similarly use the terms husband and wife in these verses and translations in other languages use equivalent terms. Thus the German Luther Bible translates Genesis 2:25 as ‘Und sie waren beide nackt, der Mensch und das Weib, und schamten sich nicht’[4] (‘Mensch’ and ‘Weib’ being ‘man’ and ‘wife’).

In the face of this ancient and continuing tradition of seeing Adam and Eve as a married couple Genesis 2-4 why does Dr Warner declare that these chapters do not depict Adam and Eve as married? The answer she gives is that the Hebrew words translated into English as husband or wife, ish and ishshah, ‘mean both woman/wife and man/husband, and therefore do not point necessarily to a marital relationship.’

What Dr Warner says in this quotation is completely correct. The words for husband and wife in biblical Hebrew are also the words for man and woman. This means that in all the verse in Genesis 2-4 which I have quoted above it would be linguistically possible to substitute ‘man’ for ‘husband’ and ‘woman’ for ‘wife.’

What this means is that the decision to use the terms husband and wife or their equivalent in translations of the Bible is a decision to interpret the biblical text in a particular way. However, this does not give any advantage to Dr Warner’s position since she too has made a decision about how to interpret the text (albeit a different decision from the one that is normally made).

What we are faced with, then, are two different decisions about how to interpret Genesis 2-4, both of which are linguistically possible. So how do we decide which decision is to be preferred?

I believe that the traditional decision is better for two reasons.

First, when two translations are linguistically possible one has to let the context decide. In terms of Genesis 2-4 this means one has to decide whether the type of relationship described in this chapter is a marital one (in which case the traditional interpretation would be better) or a more casual or temporary type of relationship (in which Dr Warner’s preferred option of referring to Adam as Eve’s ‘man’ or Eve as Adam’s ‘woman’ would be better).

In my view there can be no doubt what kind of relationship these chapters describe. They describe a monogamous, exclusive, permanent, sexual relationship between a man and woman that is oriented to the procreation of children. This is what the Jewish, and subsequently the Christian tradition, have meant when they have talked about a relationship as being a marriage and that is why they have used marital language to translate ish and ishshah. This marital language correctly expresses the kind of relationship between Adam and Eve which Genesis 2-4 describes.

To put the same thing another way, even if the words man and woman were used in the place of husband and wife in these chapters it would still remain the case that the relationship described is what the Jewish and Christian traditions would describe as marriage. This being the case, not using the term husband and wife to translate ish and ishshah would simply involve failing to make the nature of the relationship between Adam and Eve clear. It would thus be a poor act of interpretation.

Secondly, and for a Christian decisively, in Matthew 19:3-12, and Mark 10:2-12 Jesus clearly refers to the relationship between Adam and Eve described in Genesis as a marital one. The point made by Jesus in both these parallel passages is that the model for marriage is that established by God at creation as described in Genesis 1 and 2 and it is for this reason that existing Jewish discussion of divorce and re-marriage is too lenient. It follow that Jesus must have viewed Adam and Eve as being married since otherwise his argument makes no sense.

Since Jesus is God incarnate what he says in these passages has to be regarded as decisive. God, is as I have said, the ultimate author of Scripture and so what we have in these two gospel passages is the author of Scripture telling us what the meaning of Scripture is. The only way that Dr Warner’s argument can be sustained in the face of these gospel passages is to say that Jesus failed to understand Genesis properly. These means saying that God himself did not understand the Scriptures of which he was the author and this something that no Christian can ever rightly say.

It follows, once again, that what is described in Genesis 2-4 is a marriage and so translating ish and ishah as husband and wife is the right interpretative move to make.

Why Genesis 2:24 is about marriage.

Not only does Dr Warner hold that Adam and Eve themselves were not married, but she also holds that Genesis 2:24 does not refer to marriage either. In her words this verse ‘does not allude to marriage at all, but rather to the strong pull between men and women that is the consequence of God’s actions in creation.’

There are three problems with this argument.

First of all since, as we have seen, it is right to view Adam and Eve as in a marital relationship it follows that the Christian tradition has been right to see Genesis 2:22-23 in terms of God Bringing Adam and Eve together in the first marriage.

This being the case, Genesis 2:24, ‘Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh,’ is describing how marriage shall continue. What it is saying is that because Adam and Eve have been joined together in matrimony by God therefore subsequent generations of God’s human creatures shall also be joined together in matrimony. A good parallel is Exodus 20:8-11 where we read that because God rested from his work of creation on the seventh day therefore he ‘blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it’ as the day on which God’s people too should rest. A linguistically similar series of passages in which God’s action forms the basis for the subsequent action of his people can be found in Exodus 13:15, Leviticus 17:11, 12, Numbers 18:24 and Deuteronomy 5:15, 15:11, 15.

Secondly, what is described in Genesis 2:24 is not just men and women having a ‘strong pull’ towards one another. What is described instead is the establishment of a new relationship between a man and woman which is marital in form in that, like the marriage between Adam and Eve which it echoes, it is an exclusive, monogamous, permanent, sexually intimate union between a man and a woman.[5]

Thirdly, Jesus quotes Genesis 2:24 in Matthew 19:5 and Mark 10:7 to establish that marriage is a permanent union which humans should not break. It follows that he saw this verse as describing marriage and, as noted above, what he says about the matter has to be regarded as decisive since he is God himself describing the meaning of the words of which he is the ultimate author. As before, if Dr Warner is right then God is wrong and this something that we can never rightly say.


What all this means is that we should say that the relationship between Adam and Eve was a marital relationship. Furthermore according to Scripture it is the paradigmatic marriage which forms the basis for all subsequent married relationships.

As noted earlier, Genesis 2-5 show us that Adam and Eve fulfilled God’s command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ through their marriage thus establishing that procreation is an integral part of the purpose for which marriage was created.

It follows that my original argument in Glorify God in your body that same-sex relationships cannot be regarded as marriages both because they are between two people of the same sex, and because as such they are inherently non procreative, still stands.

M B Davie 6.3.19

[1] Meg Warner ‘Elephants, Penguins, Procreation and Japanese Knotweed’ athttps://viamedia.news/2019/02/08/elephants-penguins-procreation-japanese-knotweed/.

[2] Meg Warner ‘Elephants, Penguins, Procreation and Japanese Knotweed (Part 2)’https://viamedia.news/2019/03/04/elephants-penguins-procreation-japanese-knotweed-part-2/.

[3] John Calvin, Genesis (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1984). P.134.

[4] German Luther Bible at http://www.ntslibrary.com/Bible%20-%20German%20Luther%20Translation.pdf

[5] For detailed justification of this point see Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), pp.42-48 and the literature he cites.

Why marriage and procreation belong together

In the history of Christian theology it has often proved necessary to hold two apparently contradictory assertions together in order to express the truth about God and the human situation.

Thus we have to hold that:

  • God is one and yet the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all God;
  • Jesus Christ was (and is) both fully divine and yet also fully human;
  • God is completely sovereign and yet human beings have genuine freedom and responsibility:
  • We are saved without works and yet good works will necessarily be performed by all who are saved.

In this post I want to add another item to this list. I shall argue that marriage is good in itself without children and yet the procreation of children is an integral part of the purpose of marriage.

In her paper ‘Elephants, Penguins, Procreation and Japanese Knotweed,’[1] Dr Meg Warner has responded to the argument I put forward in my new book for the Church of England Evangelical Council, Glorify God in your body. In this book I argue that same-sex relationships cannot be marriages because ‘a relationship between two people of the same sex intrinsically closed to procreation, cannot be a marriage.’[2] Her response to this argument is to say that it is unconvincing from a biblical standpoint because ‘Nowhere does the Bible say that procreation is an integral element of marriage.’[3]

There are two problems with this response.

First of all, throughout the Bible, it is either stated that marriage leads to the procreation of children, or it is assumed that it will. Time without number in the Bible people who are married have children and this is regarded as a normal and expected turn of events, and as the way in which God builds up his people.

We can see this for example, at the end of the Book of Ruth where Boaz states his intention to marry Ruth and the inhabitants of Bethlehem declare their hope that the marriage will result in children:

‘May the Lord make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you prosper in Eph′rathah and be renowned in Bethlehem; and may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman.’ (Ruth 4:11-12).

The story then continues by telling us how this hope was fulfilled through the birth of Obed, the grandfather of King David, and how this brings blessing to Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi whose own sons have died.

‘So Bo′az took Ruth and she became his wife; and he went in to her, and the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Na′omi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next of kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ Then Na′omi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Na′omi.’ They named him Obed; he was the father of Jesse, the father of David.’ (Ruth 4:13-17)

Conversely, when marriages do not lead to the birth of children, as in the case of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 15:1-5), Hannah and Elkanah (1 Samuel 1:1-10), or Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-7) this is seen as something problematic for the people concerned and as a potential impediment to the fulfilment of the purposes and promises of God.

Secondly, the Bible traces the expectation that marriage will be procreative right back to the creation of the human race. It says that the reason we should expect marriages to result in children is that the paradigm form of marriage instituted by God is one that leads to the birth of children.

Warner evades what the Bible says on this point by separating Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.

On Genesis 1 she comments:

‘Procreation is foregrounded strongly in Genesis 1. In verse 28 God blesses the first humans and says, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…’. This is God’s first instruction and first blessing. It is tempting to interpret it as a special, central, divine imperative for humans. It is, however, made also to animals and birds (verse 22) and there is no requirement for humans to marry first, any more that there is a requirement for animals or birds to marry.’[4]

On Genesis 2 she states:

‘The ‘not good’ thing in Genesis 2 was that the human being was alone (Gen 2:18). So, after some initial false starts, God made another human being, a woman (ishshah), to be a ‘helper’ with the adam. Note that she was not created primarily to bring the adam (who only now is identified as a male human [ish], signifying the beginnings of gender) companionship or to have his children, but to ‘help’ him in his vocation of serving the earth. (Note, too, that the Hebrew word ezer [‘helper’] doesn’t imply subordination – it is often used to describe God as our helper, eg. Psalms 10:14, 30:10, 54:4.).

Even if Genesis 2 tells us something about marriage, it does not tell us that marriage is for having children. The first responsibility of men and women, says Genesis 2, is to care for God’s creation. We (anthropocentric creatures that we are) think the story is all about us. It is not. It is about the earth first.’[5]

For Warner Genesis 1 is about procreation, but not marriage and Genesis 2 is about marriage, but not about procreation.

The problem with this reading of Genesis 1 and 2 is that it ignores the basic rule of biblical interpretation that you need to read biblical books as whole entities. Genesis 1 and 2 are part of a much bigger continuous narrative that extends all the way to Genesis 50 and so they have to be read together, and read in the light of this bigger narrative.

The major theme of the narrative contained in Genesis 1-50 is descent (which is why Genesis is structured round a series of genealogies[6]). Genesis is about how the people of Israel was formed by the descendants of Abraham in accordance with the promise made to Abraham by God in Genesis 12:1-3, a promise which is turn related to the promise of salvation through the seed of Eve in Genesis 3:15, which is turn related to God’s command to his human creatures to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ in Genesis 1:28. Genesis 2 has to be read in the light of this overall concern with the issue of descent.

In Genesis 1:28 God tells his male and female human creatures:

‘And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’’

In this verse having children and exercising dominion are not two separate commands, but two aspects of one command. It is by having children that the human race is able to fill the earth and subdue it and thus exercise dominion on behalf of God.

The story starting in Genesis 2 is about how this dual aspect command begins to be fulfilled in practice even in the face of human rebellion. The man Adam is put in the garden to begin to exercise dominion over God’s creation and verses 18-25 tell ‘the story of God’s creation of Eve as a suitable helper and companion for Adam.’ [7]

In these verses, as Warner suggests, the emphasis is on the companionate aspect of the relationship between Adam and Eve. Marriage is depicted as good in itself even though children are not (yet) on the scene.

However, the reader of Genesis who has read Genesis 1:28 is still left asking how the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ aspect of God’s command to his human creatures will be fulfilled, particularly since in Genesis 3:15 the idea that God’s purposes will be fulfilled through the begetting of children is once again emphasized.

Genesis 3:16 then supplies the answer by saying that it will come about through childbearing in the context of a relationship between husband and wife:

To the woman he said,
‘I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.’[8]

The situation outlined in this verse then comes to pass in Genesis 4:1-2, 25-6, 5:1-3 in which Adam and Eve (with the help of God) beget Cain, Abel and Seth (and then other sons and daughters 5:4) as the fruit of their marital relationship, with the line of Seth (which eventually leads to Abraham and his descendants) being the means by which the promise of redemption in 3:15 begins to come about after the murder of Abel by Cain.

What all this means is that in the bigger narrative concerning Adam and Eve running from Genesis 2:4 to 5-5 the first human couple begin to fulfil through their marriage both aspects of the dual command in Genesis 1:28. even in the conditions prevailing after the Fall. They are God’s image bearers exercising dominion and they are fruitful and multiply thus allowing God’s work to continue and expand even in the face of death.

As Jesus’ response to the question of divorce indicates (Matthew 19:3-12, Mark 10:2-12), the reason why we are told about Adam and Eve is not just out of antiquarian interest, but because they are the paradigm married couple who indicate how God created marriage to be.[9] It follows that the way in which Adam and Eve fulfil the creation mandate to be fruitful is to be viewed as a paradigm for all subsequent marriages (which is why, as we have said, Scripture views the begetting of children within marriage as the normal state of affairs – this is how God created things to be[10]).

To sum up: we need to read Genesis as whole and when we do we find that Adam and Eve, the paradigm married couple, fulfil Genesis 1:28 through their marital relationship and this establishes a God given pattern for human behaviour which the rest of the Bible (and the subsequent tradition of the Church) simply follows.

This being the case, even though a marital relationship between a husband and wife is a good in itself even without children because of the ‘mutual society, help, and comfort’[11] it provides, it is nonetheless the case that the procreation of children is an integral part of what marriage is for.

The case that same-sex relationships cannot be regarded as marriages both because they are between two people of the same sex and because they are inherently not procreative therefore still stands.

M B Davie 20.2.19




[1] Meg Warner ‘Elephants, Penguins, Procreation and Japanese Knotweed’ at

Elephants, Penguins, Procreation & Japanese Knotweed

[2] Martin Davie, Glorify God in your body (London: CEEC, 2018) p.154.

[3] Warner, art c it, emphasis in the original.

[4] Warner, art cit.

[5] Warner, art cit.

[6] See Stephen Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty (Nottingham: Apollos, 2003), pp. 55-56.

[7] Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, The Drama of Scripture (London: SPCK, 2006), p.16.

[8] For the interpretation of this verse see Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh – Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), pp. 58-80.

[9] If we ask why Jesus doesn’t say anything about children this is because this was not the issue at hand.

[10] In Genesis and throughout the Bible children are born out of wedlock, but in every case where this happens there are explicit or implicit indications that this is not how things are meant to be. See Davidson for a detailed discussion of therelevant verses.

[11] Book of Common Prayer marriage service.

A response to the letter from the Bishop of Bangor

A new letter from the Bishop of Bangor

In his new episcopal letter to the Diocese of Bangor on 2 February 2019[1] Bishop Andy John does three things.

  • First, he sets out the result of the voting on the issue of same-sex relationships that took place in the Governing Body of the Church in Wales in September 2018 and September 2015.
  • Secondly, he notes the divisions over the issue of same-sex unions within the Anglican Communion and the Christian Church as a whole, the persecution of LGBTI+ people and the way in which for many LGBTI+ people ‘the attitudes and assumptions of the Church today makes a hostile environment in which to survive let alone participate and thrive.’
  • Thirdly, he sets out his own thinking on the issue of same-sex relationships and way forward for the Church in Wales on this matter.

In this response I shall focus on what he say about his own thinking, but I shall also return at the end to the important point about the way in which attitudes and assumptions within the Church create difficulties for people with same-sex attraction.

A critical analysis of his argument

The bishop begins his account of his own thinking by noting what is said in the Old and New Testaments about marriage being between a man and a woman and about the prohibition of same sex sexual activity as a consequence of this. He comments:

‘Those Christians who urge the Church to adhere to traditional teaching believe that these texts, taken together, provide a broad and comprehensive prohibition. They rightly point out that whenever the Bible deals with this matter [i.e. same-sex sexual activity] it is always in negative terms and is properly summed up in the oft-repeated phrase: ‘The Church cannot bless what God does not.’'[

What the Bishop does not then do is explain how the biblical texts to which he has just referred can be understood if his preferred approach of supporting same-sex unions is adopted. He notes that these texts exist, but subsequently ignores them. This is highly problematic because if, as the Church has always held, these texts are part of God’s revelation of his will to the human race, then the bishop needs to offer some account of what they mean for us today. How are we to understand and apply the biblical rejection of all forms of sexual relationship outside marriage (same-sex relationships included)? The Bishop simply does not say.

What he does instead is move on to a number of other biblical texts which other Christians see as supportive of same-sex relationships.

The first text he appeals to is Galatians 5:22-23. He explains that those who are same-sex attracted experience in their relationship with their partner of the same sex ‘the very fruit of the Spirit identified by St Paul as a mark of God’s presence and blessing.’ What he fails to acknowledge however, is that Galatians 5:16-24 needs to be read as a literary unit in which St. Paul contrasts walking by the Spirit to living by the ‘flesh’ (by which he means the desires of fallen human nature.

In Galatians 5:18 Paul specifies that among the works of the flesh are ‘fornication, impurity and licentiousness.’ These are all general terms for sexual immorality, which in the New Testament context means all sexual activity outside marriage. Those who engage in such immorality, he says, ‘shall not inherit the kingdom of God’ (5:21).

By contrast, one of the fruits of the Spirit specified in Galatians 5:23 is egkrateia which means self-control (including sexual self-control) and which in context means avoiding the kind of immoral behaviour previously specified including sexually immoral behaviour. Furthermore, Galatians 5:24 declares ‘those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires’ and in context living this out must mean avoiding sexual immorality since this has been specified as a work of the flesh.

What all this means is that however much those with same-sex attraction may feel they experience the other fruits of the Spirit, according to Galatians 5:16-24 as a whole they are not living according to the Spirit but according to the flesh if they engage in same-sex sexual activity and if they do so they risk exclusion from God’s eternal kingdom.

The second text he appeals to is Matthew 5:16-17 which, he says, declares ‘fruitfulness’ to be the litmus test ‘which reveals the authenticity (or not) of any claim to communion with God and grace.’ In his view this means that we have to ask ‘If the fruit of a relationship is growth in godly character, in what sense can such a relationship could be considered ‘against the will of God’?

The first problem with what the bishop says here is that Matthew 5:16-17 does not say anything about fruitfulness. The text he is actually referring to is Matthew 7:16-17. The second problem is that Matthew 7:16-17 forms part of the Sermon on the Mount and the opening part of this sermon makes it clear that the ‘good fruit’ referred to in Matthew 7:17-18 is a life which fulfils the ‘law and the prophets’ (Matthew 5:17), by which is meant the teaching of what we called the Old Testament, and that Jesus interpreted the teaching about sexual ethics contained in the Old Testament more rather than less strictly than his Jewish contemporaries (Matthew 5:27-32).

Given the Old Testament’s rejection of same-sex sexual activity it is therefore impossible to envisage that the good fruit in Matthew 7:17-18 includes a relationship involving such activity.

The bishop then goes on to line up three texts, Acts 10, Acts 15:20-21 and Colossians 2:20-21. His argument is that in Colossians 2:20-21 St. Paul argues on the basis of the gospel that Christians are now free to ignore the teaching of Acts 15:20-21 that Gentiles admitted into the Church on the basis of God’s revelation to St. Peter in Acts 10 should abstain from eating blood and the meat of animals sacrificed to idols. Given this precedent, asks the bishop, is ‘it inappropriate for the church to ask whether the boundaries and limits of this new freedom have been properly explored and understood?’ In other words, can we not claim a freedom from restriction on sexual relationships just as St. Paul claimed a freedom from restriction on eating certain kinds of food?

The problem with this argument is that once again the bishop has ignored the context of the verses to which he refers. As David Gooding explains in his commentary on Acts,[2] what the restriction in Acts 15 is about is Gentiles respecting the consciences of Jewish believers for the sake of the unity of the Church. St. Paul too underlines the importance this principle of respecting the consciences of others regarding food (see Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8-10). However, in Colossians 2 the issue is different. Here St. Paul is facing teaching which says that it is necessary for Christians to observe the Jewish law in its fullness in order to be saved. He rejects this for the same reason he rejects similar teaching in Galatians, namely that salvation comes through dying and rising with Christ and not through legal observance.

On closer inspection, therefore, the supposed development from Acts 15 to Colossians 2 collapses and therefore so too does this part of the bishop’s argument.

The bishop’s next move is to argue that we have now moved beyond biblical teaching with regard to slavery, the position of women, divorce, usury and the belief that heaven is above and hell below us. The problem with this line of argument is that for the argument to be convincing the bishop would have to establish, rather than simply assert, that the Bible gives teaching in these areas which we are right to reject and that the principles that would lead us to reject it should also lead us to accept same-sex relationships. The bishop, however, fails to do this.

What he does instead is appeal to the idea that discerning the will of God includes ‘includes reading the Scriptures as well as other sources of authority such as reason, scientific evidence and in serious dialogue with other disciplines.’

There is no problem with the idea of making use of reason and scientific evidence and theology engaging in dialogue with other intellectual disciplines. Christians have been doing this since the Patristic era. However, because Scripture is directly inspired by God in the way that other human thinking is not, we have to avoid seeking to correct Scriptural teaching on the basis of human ideas. It is important to allow reason and science to challenge and refine the way we read the Scriptures, but in the end we have to accept that the Scriptures themselves are supremely authoritative as our basis for understanding God and what it means to live rightly before him (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

In addition the bishop fails to give any explanation of why reason, science and dialogue with other disciplines should re-shape the way we read Scripture on the issue of sexuality.

The bishop goes on to declare that having ministered alongside those in same-sex relationships:

‘I have come to believe that the Church should now fully include without distinction those who commit to permanent loving unions with a person of the same sex. I further believe that the best way to do this is for the Church to marry these people as we do with men and women.’

What this declaration does not tell us is the reasons why he has come to believe this. The fact that he has come to believe this does not mean that anyone else should unless he can show cogent reasons, in line with Scripture, why it would be right for them to do so.

As the Bishop sees it, allowing people of the same sex to marry in Church:

‘…will strengthen our witness to a world which longs to see justice and fairness for all, regardless of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation, and cannot understand how the Church is still wrestling with an issue that most people have accepted long ago.’

What he is basically saying here is that the Church should conform to the world. The world has a particular understanding of what justice and fairness involves and we need to conform to it. The problem here is that this appeal to the principles of justice and fairness backfires.

What is normally meant by justice and fairness is giving people what is their due and treating equal cases equally. Contemporary society thinks this involves accepting same sex relationships and being willing to call them marriages. Anything else is seen as unjust and unfair.

However, if God has in fact created a world in which men and women are designed to engage in sexual relationships only with members of the opposite sex and has instituted marriage as a relationship between two people of the opposite sex then we do not owe it to people to say that same-sex relationships are morally acceptable and the principle of treating equal cases equally does not entail calling a relationship between two men or two men a marriage.

We cannot get away from the basic issue of what kind of a world has God made, and to know that we need to not only look at the evidence of biology which indicates that human bodies are designed for heterosexual sex (which is the point being made by St. Paul in Romans 1:26-27), but supremely the testimony of Scripture which teaches us that our bodies are designed this way by God and that it is God who created marriage as the proper context for heterosexual sex to take place.

Although he personally supports same-sex marriage the bishop also suggests that:

‘… there are good arguments for developing the Church’s teaching in other ways, for example by introducing a service of life vows or revisiting the question of blessing same sex unions.’

However, yet again he does not say what these arguments are or explain how such vows or blessings would be compatible with Scripture if they involved giving official church recognition to same-sex relationships.


For the reasons given above the argument presented by the Bishop of Bangor in his letter is not convincing. He simply does not make out a convincing case for changing the Church’s teaching and practice.

Where he is right, however, is in saying that many people with same-sex attraction experience the Church as a hostile place. However, the proper way to address this is not to change the Church’s teaching.

As the Ed Shaw, himself same-sex attracted, argues in his important book The Plausibility Problem,[3] the problem lies not with the Church holding that sex should only take place within heterosexual marriage, but with the way in which people within the Church collude with the culture in suggesting that you can’t be happy without sex, value marriage and family life above singleness, and wrongly identify godliness with heterosexuality.

What the Church needs to do, he argues, is recapture the importance of celibacy and singleness and provide a place where everyone is valued, loved and supported regardless of their sexual attraction. That is what is needed, not same-sex marriage.

[1] https://bangor.eglwysyngnghymru.org.uk/newyddion/2019/02/03/llythyr-esgobol-newydd-esgob-andy/

[2] David Gooding, True to the Faith, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990, pp.237-238.

[3] Ed Shaw, The Plausibility Problem, Nottingham: IVP. 2015.



Believing in the body

Dr John Shepherd and the denial of the bodily resurrection.

It was revealed last week that the new interim head of the Anglican Centre in Roman, John Shepherd, appears not to believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead.

In an Easter message from 2008 unearthed by the conservative Anglican commentator David Ould, Dr Shepherd, who was then the Dean of Perth Cathedral in Western Australia, declares:

‘The Resurrection of Jesus ought not to be seen in physical terms, but as a new spiritual reality. It is important for Christians to be set free from the idea that the Resurrection was an extraordinary physical event which restored to life Jesus’ original earthly body.’

He goes on to say that:

‘Jesus’ early followers felt His presence after His death as strongly as if it were a physical presence and incorporated this sense of a resurrection experience into their gospel accounts;. But they’re not historical records as we understand them. They are symbolic images of the breaking through of the resurrection spirit into human lives.’

As he sees it, the truth behind the bodily imagery used to describe Jesus in the resurrection accounts in the Gospels is that ‘Jesus lived … as a transformed spiritual reality.’[1]

In response to criticisms of what he said in this message, Dr Shepherd has now stated: ‘It is my faith that Jesus rose from the dead and I have never denied the reality of the empty tomb.’[2]

How is one to square this new statement with what he said in 2008 (and which he has never repudiated)? As far as I can see, the only way to make sense of his position is to say he believes that the tomb was empty because Jesus’ physical body came to be transformed into a new form of existence which was entirely spiritual, and therefore non-corporeal. There was no body in the tomb because the body had ceased to exist.

The problems with his teaching.

This account of Jesus’ resurrection is clearly at variance with classical Anglican teaching which holds, in the words of Article IV of the Thirty Nine Articles, that ‘Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature.’

More importantly, it is contrary to the witness of the New Testament which uses the term ‘resurrection’ in its first century Jewish sense of the bodily resurrection of those who have died. The belief witnessed to consistently in the New Testament is that resurrection means neither a purely spiritual mode of post-mortem existence, nor a reanimation of our bodies into the same state that they were in before they died. Rather, the belief found in the New Testament is that following the pattern of Christ’s resurrection our bodies will be given new life by God, a new life in which they will be animated by the Holy Spirit and free from the decay and mortality which afflicts them in this world.[3]

This is what St. Paul means when he writes in 1 Corinthians 15:43-44 that the body of the Christian ‘…is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.’ As Tom Wright notes, the contrast here is not between our present physical existence and a future non-physical one. ‘The contrast is between the present body, corruptible, decaying and doomed to die, and the future body, incorruptible, un-decaying, never to die again.’[4] It is the self-same body, but in two very different modes of existence. [5]

Why people have ceased to believe in the bodily resurrection.

If we ask why Shepherd and many other theologians, members of the clergy and ordinary lay Christians, have ceased to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus the answer is twofold.

Firstly, there is the influence of the scepticism about the possibility of miracles that has become a central part of Western thought since the Enlightenment. Nature is seen as closed system which God (if he exists) either cannot, or does not, alter. Within this closed system bodies die and then decay and the same, it is held, must have been true of the body of Jesus.

This, however, does not seem to be the road which Dr Shepherd has gone down. What his thinking reflects is another prevalent strand of Western thought, one which denies the unity of the human person.

The Christian tradition, following the Bible, has taught that human beings have been created by God as a ‘psychosomatic unity.’ That is to say they, are neither purely spiritual (like angels), nor purely material (like rocks), but an inseparable combination of a spiritual soul and a material body. In the words of Karl Barth, a human being:

‘…is soul as he is a body and this is his body. Hence he is not only soul that ‘has’ a body which perhaps it might not have, but he is bodily soul, as he also besouled body.’ [6]

Much modern Western thought, however, has denied the unity of the human person. Following a tradition going back to Plato it has held instead that the true self is a purely spiritual entity which is only tangentially and temporarily attached to a body.

On this view of the matter it does not matter if the body of Christ ceased to exist because the real Jesus was his immortal soul which entered after his death into a new form of purely spiritual existence and the Christian hope becomes that the same will be true for us.

For orthodox Christianity this notion is heretical because it denies the reality of how God has made us and the hope which he has given us through Christ’s resurrection that this reality will find its fulfilment in the world to come. As we have seen, the New Testament witness is that we who have an embodied existence in this world will also live for ever in a glorious embodied existence in the world to come, and genuine Christian hope is based on the conviction that this witness is true.

Disregard of the body and the acceptance of same-sex sexual activity and gender transition.

The disregard of the importance of the body which results in this form of denial of belief in the resurrection of the body is what also lies behind the modern arguments for the acceptance of same-sexual activity and gender transition.

Modern liberal arguments for the acceptance of both are based on the belief that whatever the immaterial self desires should be viewed as good. Thus if I want to have sex with a member of my own sex that should be viewed as good because it is what I desire. [7] Thus also, if I desire to adopt a gender identity that is at variance with my biological identity this too should be viewed as good because it is what I desire.

At the heart of this approach is a belief in freedom as absolute self-determination. In the words of John Webster:

‘Modern accounts of freedom identify freedom as unfettered liberty for self-creation and therefore contrast freedom and nature: freedom is the antithesis of the given, a move over and against any sense that I have a determinate identity.’ [8]

From an orthodox Christian perspective, however, simply focusing on what we desire is insufficient. This is because, to quote Webster again, being human is not about ‘an utterly original making of life and history.’ Rather ‘to be human is to live and act in conformity to the given truth (nature) of who I am.’[9] This given nature of who I am is good like everything else that God has made (Genesis 1:31) and true freedom is the ability to accept this given nature as God’s gift and live accordingly.

Central to what God has given us is bodies which have a particular sex (Genesis 1:26-27) [10] and which are designed by him for sexual intercourse with a member of the opposite sex in the context of marriage (Genesis 2:18-24).[11] The path of Christian virtue consequently lies in working to conform our desires to this key aspect of our embodiment rather than disregarding our embodiment for the sake of our desires.

In specific terms what this means is that we need to obey St. Paul’s injunction to ‘glorify God in your body (1 Corinthians 6:20) by accepting the sex of our bodies as our sex and restricting our sexual activity to the opposite sex marital end for which it was designed.

This is a hard calling for those who suffer from gender dysphoria or who are same-sex attracted, but it is not a calling that the Church is free to say that they can therefore disregard. This is because it is a particular form of a general calling to all Christians to die to self in order to live for God. It is the concrete meaning for them of Jesus’ declaration ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (Matthew 16:24).

Believing in the body and living it out.

In summary, the Christian faith tells us that we are embodied beings. We have no self outside the particular embodied self God has created us to be. On this basis our hope lies in the belief that, like Jesus, we shall be raised from the dead to live a new embodied life free from corruption, decay and death in God’s eternal kingdom. On this basis also our present calling is to live out our embodiment according to the sex of the bodies that God has given us and to engage in sexual activity only with a member of the opposite sex and in the context of marriage.

These are the truths by which, with God’s assistance, we are called to live in the midst of the theological and moral confusion of our day and these are the truths we are called to make known to those around us so that they may live by them too.

[1] David Ould, ‘New head of Anglican Centre in Rome is denier of Jesus’ resurrection,’ at https://davidould.net/new-head-of-anglican-centre-in-rome-is-denier-of-jesus-resurrection/.

[2] Anglican Communion News Service, ‘Interim Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome rebuffs “resurrection” Criticism,’ January 15, 2019, at: https://www.anglicannews.org/news/2019/01/interim-director-of-the- anglican-centre-in-rome-rebuffs-resurrection-criticism.aspx.

[3] For this see N T Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, London: SPCK, 2003.

[4] Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, London: SPCK, 2007, p.167.

[5] An analogy would be the way in which the self-same body is in both continuity and difference the body of a baby, a child and an adult.

[6] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.2, London and New York: T&T Clark, 2004, p.350.

[7] The contemporary emphasis on consent fits into this approach because it says that sex is something that both people involved should desire.

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

[9] Ibid, p.88.

[10] The only exceptions are the tiny number of people (some 0.018% of live births) who due to a disorder in their sexual development are genuinely intersex in the sense that they have both male and female elements in their biology.

[11] When St. Paul says in Romans 1:26 that same-sex activity is ‘unnatural’ what he means is that it goes against the way that human bodies are designed. For this point see Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001, pp.254-270.