A Review of Robert Song ‘Covenant and Calling’

Introduction

This new book by Robert Song, a lay Anglican theologian who is Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Durham, is written as a contribution to the conversations that are taking place amongst Anglicans and other Christians about theology and sexual relationships.

The heart of the issue which Professor Song discusses in this book is whether the coming of Christ means that there can be a third form of Christian vocation alongside the two traditionally recognised callings of marriage and celibacy. Song summarises the issue as follows in the Preface to his book:

‘Sex BC is not the same as sex AD. Before Christ, marriage as a good of creation was inseparable from procreation; but after Christ, while marriage and procreation do not stop being goods, we are also directed to a future resurrection life in which marriage and procreation will be no more. The vocation of celibacy is the first sign of this resurrection life, witnessing as it does to a time when God will be known as the fulfilment of all our desires. The question is whether this ‘time between the times’ in which we live, between Christ’s resurrection and his return in glory, also admits of another calling. Is there a space for another kind of vocational structure, a structure of relationship, which might also be an appropriate way of inhabiting this theological time between the times? Could such a relationship be sexually expressed? And what would sexuality signify in such circumstances?’ (pp.x-xi)

The argument that Song puts forward is that there is a space for such a third vocation (what he calls a ‘covenant partnership’), that it could legitimately be sexually expressed (including between two people of the same sex) and that what sex in these circumstances would signify is God’s love for us and God’s love for God which is the basis of His love for us. In making this argument there are, he says, three paths which he has tried not to follow:

  • First, he has not taken a ‘programmatically liberal’ theological approach. ‘I do not, for example argue for a principled methodological privileging of experience over Scripture, tradition or reason, nor do I interpret reason as a realm of self-grounded truth standing autonomously over against Scripture or tradition.’ (pp.xi-xii)
  • Secondly, he has not acceded to the idea ‘that change in moral teaching should be driven by demands that the Church move with the times, or that it should change its ethical norms to fir perceived missiological needs.’ (p.xiv)
  • Thirdly, he has sought to avoid an approach taken by ‘many theological defences of same-sex relationships’ which is ‘to play down the created nature of bodies and bodily difference.’ In his view such an approach runs the risk of being ‘docetic’ in the sense of denying that our bodies are fundamental to who we are: ‘when it is asserted or implied that one’s sex isimmaterial, or that there is in principle no connection at all in creation between sex and procreation, we might begin to wonder whether we are beginning to witness the denial of our nature as body-soul unities.’ (p.xv)

Given that he does not follow these three paths, how does he develop his case for a third vocation, a case which he admits ‘reaches towards conclusions that differ from those that historic Christianity has generally arrived at’? (p.xi)

Marriage and God’s coming Kingdom

He begins in chapter 1, ‘The beginning and end of marriage,’ by arguing that marriage was established by God as a ‘created good’ (p.3), that it is marked by the three ‘goods’ of faithfulness, permanence and procreation, and that it provides an analogy of God’s relationship to His people and enables human beings to share God’s joy in creation by participating through procreation in God’s creative activity. However, because marriage belongs to the current created order its importance is relativized in the New Testament by Jesus’ teaching about God’s coming kingdom in which there will be neither marriage nor procreation (Luke 20:34-36 cf. Matthew 22:23-33, Mark 12:18-27). As a result, both in the New Testament and in the Church subsequently two forms of vocation have been recognised, marriage (which testifies to the good of the present created order) and celibacy (which testifies to the life of God’s eternal kingdom).

The meaning and nature of covenant partnerships

In chapter 2, ‘Covenant Partnership,’ he goes on to suggest that ‘procreation has become redundant, theologically speaking, for those who are in Christ’ (p.27). This is because procreation is something that belongs to the current created order and ‘just as creation has now been fulfilled in Christ, so the purpose of procreation has now been fulfilled’ (pp.27-28). By contrast, the other two goods of marriage, faithfulness and permanence, are not redundant because they point forward ‘to the future relationship between humankind and God that has been made real in Christ and will be revealed in its fullness at the eschaton’ (p.28). In Song’s view, the continuing importance of faithfulness and permanence then ‘opens up the question’ of whether ‘there might be forms of non-procreative committed relationship’ (open to both heterosexual and homosexual couples) that would serve to bear witness to the fulfilment of ‘God’s covenant love to human beings’ in life of the world to come. (p.28).

Because they bear witness to God’s covenant love, Song proposes that such relationships should be called ‘covenant partnerships’ and he writes that, like marriage, they would be marked by three ‘goods’:

‘First, those entering upon them would be committed to faithfulness. Just as Christ gave himself up for the Church, so also the partners would commit themselves not only negatively to excluding sexual relationships with all others, but would each be actively committed to giving themselves up for and nurturing the other in love. Second, they would embody a commitment to permanence. Just as God, despite his anger at Israel’s unfaithfulness, repeatedly commits himself to them, so covenant partnerships would be constituted and sustained by mutual commitments of the partners to each other until death did them part. Third, instead of biological procreativity, they would be characterized by other forms of fruitfulness. Since such relationships are eschatologically grounded. They would take their orientation from the demands of the Kingdom. In line with Paul’s aspirations in 1 Corinthians 7, they would be free to be anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; they would not be self-enclosed or self-satisfied, but would be open to the call of charity beyond themselves’ (p.28).

Although such relationships would not involve the procreation of children, ‘this would not preclude their bringing up children: the role of adopting or fostering, for example, would be a prime example of fruitfulness’ (p.29).

Sex inside and outside marriage

In chapter 3, Sexual Differentiation, Sex and Procreation,’ Song accepts that there is a case for marriage being between two people of the opposite sex. However, this is only because ‘marriage in creation is orientated to procreation’ (p.48). As he sees it, there are ‘no other grounds that can provide the theological weight needed to require that marriage be sexually differentiated’ (p.49 italics his). The corollary of this is that ‘if procreation is no longer eschatologically necessary, then there are no grounds for requiring all committed relationships to be heterosexual. If there is a theological case for eschatologically grounded covenant partnerships which are inherently non-procreative, there is no reason why they should be heterosexual’ (p.49)

Having argued this point he then goes on to further argue that such partnerships could legitimately be sexual in nature. He suggests that Genesis 2, the Song of Songs and 1 Corinthians 7 provide ‘hints that sex has roles other than procreation’ (p.55) and states that ‘if one concedes that contraception is justifiable, one also concedes that sex is characterised by a good which is independent of and additional to its orientation to procreation’ (p.58). If we ask what that good is, the answer that Song gives is that just as marriage and covenant partnerships point to the permanence and faithfulness of God’s commitment to us so also ‘sex embodies and points to the nature of our relationship with God’ (p.59). This is because ‘to be desired be another whom you yourself desire, to know that you are a joy for another who is in turn a joy for you, these are at the heart of erotic and so of sexual encounter: the intimacy of communion that one experiences with another is a foretaste of communion one will experience with God. Sexual relationship may thus become a glimpse into the inner life of God and focus for us the very reason for our creation, that we might participate in this’

A fresh reading of Scripture

In chapter 4, ‘Reading the Bible,’ Song goes on to offer a reading of the Bible to support his case for the acceptability of sexual activity even between covenant partners of the same sex.

In this chapter he offers a fairly conservative reading of the biblical texts that deal explicitly with same-sex sexual activity, Romans 1:18-32, Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:10 and accepts that these texts are opposed to such activity. However, for Song, this is not the end of the matter.

The reason this is the case is because ‘the whole eschatological and ascetic thrust of the New Testament is towards a vision of the resurrection life which, against the majority Jewish teaching of the time, is not a repristination of marriage and family life but a life beyond marriage, sex and family altogether’ (p.74). This can be seen in Jesus’ radical redefinition of family in Matthew 12:28-40, his call to give priority to following him over family responsibilities in Matthew 8:21-22 and his teaching about those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 19:12. It can also be seen in St. Paul’s unmarried state, his wish in 1 Corinthians 7:7 that all were likewise able to be celibate and his reluctant acceptance that it is better to marry than to burn in 1 Corinthians 7:9.

According to Song:

‘The overall New Testament emphasis that it is no longer human family lineage that matters, neither ancestry nor progeny, but incorporation in the body of Christ and sharing in the blood of Christ; its mysterious silence about the positive good of having children, as opposed to welcoming and disciplining those who happen to exist; and its endorsement of marriage and the family, but only as second best to celibacy – all of these point to profound reorientation of the creation goods of marriage and procreation. Marriage is second best, not because sex is bad, but because marriage and procreation are transitory whereas celibacy points to the life immortal. In other words, there being no procreation in heaven is not an isolated and detachable theme in the New Testament but a central constituent of its entire theological vision.’ (pp.74-75)

In addition, says Song:

‘When we add to this two further claims – first, that the initial reason given in Genesis and the only finally defensible reason for marriage being sexually differentiated is its aptitude for procreation, and therefore that there is theological space for eschatologically grounded covenant partnerships which need not be sexually differentiated because procreation will not feature in the resurrection life’ and second, that in this life sex can be good even when non-procreative – then we have the beginnings of a general case not only for non-procreative but still sexually active heterosexual covenant partnerships but also for same-sex relationships as well’ (p.75).

Song contends that the pressures of St. Paul’s context were such as to make it impossible for him to be anything but negative about same-sex sexual relationships, but the same does not have to be true for us:

‘Even if Paul was aware of consensual committed same-sex partnerships from literature, philosophy or general observation of life, it is one thing to know about them in the abstract, another to know about them from close acquaintance and to begin to ponder and weigh their significance. And even if he had begun that process and had started to entertain strange thoughts about them – and there is no evidence at all to suggest this, we should be clear – the overwhelming social, religious, pragmatic and rhetorical pressures would have made it all but impossible for him to have written differently than he did. But the fact that it would have been impossible for him does not mean that it is necessarily impossible for us who live in the space shaped by the story of which he was the apostle’ (p.76).

Song finishes the chapter by raising the issue of the just war tradition within Christianity. Following Augustine, this tradition has held that in spite of New Testament passages such as Matthew 5:39, and 5:43-45 and Romans 12:19 that seem to point in a pacifist direction, engagement in war can be legitimate for Christians as a form of love for neighbour. This example, he says raises the question ‘Why is it that war, and therefore who one may kill, can be widely justified in the Christian tradition by appeal to love, whereas same-sex relations, and therefore who one may love, cannot?’ (p.78). Song acknowledges the difficulties about ‘simple appeals to love in moral theology’ (p.78), but he argues that we need to take seriously the fact that ‘love shows the point of the law’ (p.78) and that this means that:

‘If prohibitions against same-sex relationships on the basis of biblical injunctions are to be sustained as part of Christian discipleship and are not to be viewed warily as the inscrutable commands of a distant deity, some effort has to be made to show what good they serve. Why is this the way of love? What glimpses of human fulfilment does it point to? If perhaps it is for some wider good of society for which I as an individual may have to sacrifice myself, what is that good, and why does it demand this sacrifice? If it is for my good, what good might that be, or is it simply the satisfaction of knowing that I have lived in accordance with God’s standards? And what purposes of the God of love might be behind God’s standards?’ (pp.78-79)

For Song the issue of the just war tradition also raises the question of why the churches can live with some differences and not others. Why are churches that have accepted just war tradition been able to accept the existence of pacifist groups without this generating calls for schism? Song asks whether it might be possible to live with difference in the same way in relation to the issue of same-sex relationships. In his view:

‘…this would require one concession on the part of those who maintain a conservative position: namely a recognition that those who are exploring alternative positions should not be quickly condemned for simple disobedience to the plain meaning of Scripture, but may themselves also be seeking to interpret Scripture in a way more faithful to the trajectory of texts than traditional readings have allowed. Theirs may or may not be the best interpretation, whatever that might mean, and it is certainly not the only one. But how might one go about deciding whether it is at least a legitimate one?’ (p. 80)

Three possible ways forward for covenant partnerships and marriage

In chapter 5, ‘Same-Sex Marriage?’, Song looks at how his proposed category of covenant partnership ‘might map on to the categories of marriage and other legally recognized relationships that can be found in wider society’ (p.82). He looks at three possibilities.

  • The first is to ‘correlate covenant partnership and civil partnership’ (p.83). Song sees the attraction of this option being that it would bring out clearly the key theological distinction between covenant partnerships and marriage, by not involving any expectation of procreation. However the fact that the civil partnership approach would probably principally involve same-sex couples would distort the theological point that covenant partnerships are meant to be a category covering all non-procreative relationships, whether homosexual or heterosexual. In addition there would be practical issues about couples changing their minds about wanting to have children or be childless, but being in a civil partnership or a marriage even though this was the wrong category, and there would also be the issue of the fact that Civil Partnerships are still widely regarded as a second best to marriage rather than an equal alternative.
  • The second is to ‘regard covenant partnerships as marriage, tout court’ (p.88). This would be the easiest option, but it would lend itself too easily to a ‘denial of the significance of sexual difference’ (p.88) and would run the risk of losing both the connection between sex and procreation and a specifically Christian view of marriage rooted in the biblical notions of ‘creation, covenant and calling’ (p.89). Furthermore, by fitting all forms of relationship into the one category of marriage ‘the particular gifts that lesbians, gays, transsexuals and intersex people, as well as heterosexual couples wishing to explore forms of non-procreative vocation, might bring to the Church and to wider society would be suffocated in a smog of conformity’ (p.89).
  • The third is to subsume marriage under the category of covenant partnership. Under this approach ‘All covenant partnerships would be characterized by faithfulness, permanence and fruitfulness, but in some cases that fruitfulness would take the specific form of children from within the couple’s sexual relationship, in other cases it would take the form of any number of kinds of works of charity, including not least, adoption and fostering’ (pp.89-90).

Song sees lots of positives in this third approach. It would allow for a single, theologically unified, category of relationship rooted both in creation and eschatology. By breaking the link with notions of gender hierarchy it would emphasize that marriage is about a relationship between two equals and it would make clear that all marriages, even procreative ones, are meant to marked by ‘hospitality and openness to the other’ (p.90) rather than being centred on the fulfilment of a couple or the happiness of a family. On the other hand, it would constitute a very significant change in the understanding of marriage and it would be likely that ‘churches would need to explore whether it was possible to preserve a separate liturgy for ‘traditional’ marriage, that is, marriage as understood in terms of created norms’ (p.91).

How the churches should respond to a changed society

In chapter 6 ‘Conclusion’, Song emphasizes the radical shift that has taken place in our society’s approach to sexual ethics since the end of the 1950s. In his view:

‘All of this calls for a major reimagination of the churches’ relations to the culture, one that no longer draws sustenance from clinging to past settlements and that harbours no surreptitious hopes for returning to them. Such reimagination emphatically does not mean endorsement of current trends. On the contrary, it requires working out of the Church’s own deepest and best understanding of its own resources, recognizing that its own part-marginality affords it the opportunity to step back and think creatively about how it is to engage. But equally, nor does reimagination mean the easy alternative of a reactionary response that condemns the entire sexual revolution out of hand and presumptively convicts any defence of, say, same-sex relationships as a form of collaborationist betrayal. If the churches are to be heralds of good news in a changed world, their tone cannot be one of increasingly shrill and bitter denunciation’ (pp.97-98).

Assessing Professor Song’s argument

Does the New Testament relativize the importance of marriage and procreation?

The heart of Song’s argument is his contention that the importance of marriage is relativized in the New Testament because of the advent of God’s coming kingdom in which there will be neither marriage nor procreation. Everything else he argues is based on this central claim.

So what are we to make of this claim?

Firstly, it is true that in all three Synoptic Gospels Jesus is recorded as saying that in God’s eternal kingdom ‘those accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection’ (Luke 20:35-36//Matthew 22:30 and Mark 12:25). It is explicitly stated in these passages that there will be no marriage and from this fact, and from the statement that those who have attained the kingdom will be ‘like the angels’ as Matthew and Mark put it, it is inferred that there will also be no procreation.

Secondly, however, it is important to note that none of the three Synoptic passages which record this teaching of Jesus contain any suggestion that the importance of marriage in this life should be regarded as less important because of what will be the case in the life of the world to come. These passages are concerned with defending belief in the resurrection against the claim of the Sadducees that the Mosaic law concerning Levirate marriage in Deuteronomy 25:5-10 showed that resurrection was an impossible concept because it would involve, among other things, a wife being married to seven men simultaneously. What they are not concerned with is the status of marriage in this life.

Jesus’ teaching about the status of marriage in this life is found in his teaching about divorce in Matthew 19:3-12 and Mark 10:2-12. In these passages he teaches that marriage as ordained by God at creation, a permanent exclusive relationship between one man and one woman, remains in force. There is no suggestion that there is any change because of the coming of the kingdom.

It is true that in Matthew 19:12 there is a reference to those ‘who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.’ However, this is not connected to what is said in Matthew 22 or elsewhere about the conditions of life in the world to come. Rather, the point seems to be that the demands of the service of God’s kingdom mean that, like Jesus and John the Baptist, some Christians will be called to a vocation of celibacy.

We find the same idea in 1 Corinthians 7. There is no suggestion in this chapter that St. Paul is relativizing marriage because of what he believes about the conditions of life after the resurrection. What he is concerned with is how to live most effectively for God and he suggests that undivided devotion to God is best attained through celibacy for those who have been given this gift (1 Corinthians 7:32-38). It is in this context that St. Paul says ‘he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.’

In the rest of the New Testament, however, it is assumed that most Christians will be married and have children (see Ephesians 5:21-6:4, Colossians 3:18-21, 1 Timothy 3:1-12, 5:1-16, Titus 2:1-6, 1 Peter 3:1-7). Furthermore if you look at the explicit and implicit teaching about sexual ethics in the New Testament in passages such as Matthew 5:27-30, Mark 7:21-22, 1 Corinthians 5:1-6:20, Galatians 5:19, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, 1 Timothy 1:10 and 2 Peter 2:1-16) it is apparent that the basic pattern of Old Testament sexual ethics remains in force in that all forms of sexual activity outside marriage are regarded as sinful with the added dimension that the desire for such activity as well as the performance of it is prohibited.

Thirdly, it is true that nothing is said in the New Testament about the theological reason for having children. Equally, however, there is nothing said to support Song’s claim that procreation has become ‘redundant’ for those who are in Christ. The best explanation for the New Testament’s silence on the matter is that it was felt that nothing additional needed to be said. God’s command in Genesis 1:28 to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ was regarded as still in force as a corollary of the Church’s belief in the theological authority of the creation narratives in general. If the first Christians had believed that procreation was no longer necessary this would have led them to abstain from having children and this is something of which we find no record in the New Testament or the history of the Early Church.

Furthermore, Song’s argument that procreation lacks an eschatological reference is unconvincing. It can perfectly well be argued that the reason for having children is to play one’s part in fulfilling the promise to Abraham of innumerable descendants (Genesis 15:5). The purpose of procreation remains what it has always been, the population of God’s coming kingdom. That is why in the marriage service in the Book of Common Prayer it said that marriage ‘was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.’ Procreation is about populating the kingdom and therefore Christians are called not just to have children, but to ensure that they are brought up to be citizens of the kingdom, those who will eventually have their place in the world to come.

What we find in the New Testament, then, is an assumption that most Christians will be married and have children alongside a belief that celibacy is an important vocation for those who are called to it as a means of serving the Lord in a way that is free from the competing pressures of family life. We also find that the Old Testament restriction of sex to marriage remains in force. Marriage is thus relativized only to the limited extent that it is not the only possible way of life to which God may call his people and it is assumed that sex, marriage and procreation will go together.

The subsequent sexual ethic of the Christian Church has built upon this New Testament foundation. It has acknowledged two vocations, marriage and celibacy, and has insisted that sexual activity can only rightly take place in the context of marriage. As C S Lewis rightly noted in Mere Christianity, ‘There is no getting away from it: the Christian rule is, ‘Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.’ [1]

It has also seen procreation as one of the goods of marriage, alongside the avoidance of sexual sin and the mutual support husband and wife can provide for each other as they journey together towards the kingdom. The differences that opened up in the twentieth century between the churches over contraception were not about whether sex and procreation should go together, but about the more limited question of whether every act of sexual intercourse between husband and wife should necessarily be open to procreation or whether there were circumstances in which there was what the Lambeth Conference of 1930 called a ‘moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood’ alongside ‘a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence.’ [2]

Should the Church recognize a third way alongside marriage and celibacy?

Song’s proposal is that the churches should now depart from the pattern we find in the New Testament and the subsequent Christian tradition in two respects.

First, as we have seen, he proposes that marriage and celibacy should no longer be seen as the exclusive alternatives for Christian discipleship. Instead he proposes a third option consisting of non-marital and non-procreative covenant partnerships which would be marked by faithfulness and permanence and would be open to both heterosexual and homosexual couples.

Secondly, he proposes that such relationships could legitimately be sexual in nature even for couples of the same sex.

These two proposals raise multiple difficulties.

To begin with it is unclear why he thinks a third category is called for. The Christian monastic tradition has always provided a way in which Christians who are not called to marriage can live out a celibate vocation in a life marked by loving companionship, a commitment to permanence and fidelity and an openness to the service of others. In addition, within parts of the monastic tradition there has historically been provision for two individuals to enter into a publicly recognized life-long partnership. [3]

The first big difference between this tradition and what Song is proposing is that the monastic tradition involves celibacy while what Song is proposing is relationships that could be sexual in nature. If we ask why he thinks this should be the case his argument seems to be that sexual activity can be good even when it is non-procreative and that it is a means by which we can experience a foretaste of the communion we shall enjoy with God in eternity.

The claim that sexual activity is good even when it is non-procreative is uncontroversial. Even the most conservative Roman Catholic theology would not say that a sexual act that was not procreative was thereby lacking in goodness. Sexual activity has its own goodness even apart from procreation.

However, there is nothing in Scripture to suggest that through sex we can have a foretaste of eternity or a ‘glimpse into the inner life of God.’ Sex in Scripture has a more modest function. Alongside being the means by which procreation takes place, it is the way in which a married couple enter into the one flesh union referred to Genesis 2:24. It is the physical means by which the two become one flesh and renew that oneness subsequently. It is in this context, and only in this context, that Scripture sees sex as a good part of God’s creation.

Sex outside this context is never seen as a good. Rather than being a means by which people can know God better, it is seen as something sinful that cuts people off from God and if not repented of leads people to be excluded for ever from God’s kingdom (Matthew 5:27-30, 1 Corinthians 6:10, Galatians 5:21, Revelation 21:8).

The second big difference is Song’s proposal for sexual, but non-procreative, relationships. The Church has always recognized that there may be married couples who cannot have children due to age or medical problems and it has also come to be widely, though not universally, accepted that there may be some cases where the particular form of Christian service a married couple is called to might make having children inadvisable. However, Song seems to be proposing that the Christian eschatological vision means that not only can you have sex without marriage, but also sex without either marriage or any openness to procreation. This is a double deviation from the biblical pattern in which sex, marriage and procreation are created to go together. It is also theologically uncalled for since, as we have seen, procreation does have an eschatological dimension.

The third big difference is that Song proposes that the Church should give recognition to same-sex sexual relationships. He acknowledges the force of the biblical verses normally cited against this idea, but he is willing to set them aside for three reasons. (a) The only reason for sexual differentiation in marriage is to have children, (b) having children is not important since the coming of Christ and (c) sex can be good even when non-procreative. Putting together these three points means that you can have same-sex relationships given that procreation and therefore sexual differentiation is a secondary issue.

The third point is acceptable with the proviso, for the reasons already outlined, that it is sex within marriage and only sex within marriage that we are talking about. The second point we have already seen to be unpersuasive. That leaves the first point and that is unpersuasive as well.

It is true that Scripture nowhere defines precisely how men and women complement each other. However, it is clear that it cannot be reduced simply to an ability to beget children. This is because in the second creation account in Genesis 2 there is no reference to the idea that Adam needs a mate in order to have children. He needs Eve to be his ‘helper’ (vv.18 & 20) in the more general sense of someone who can enable him to fulfil his calling to ‘till and keep’ (v.15) the garden. It is in this broad sense, encompassing all the physical and psychological differences between them, that men and women are complementary to each other and the marital relationship is a particular and focussed example of this general truth.

Should we view St. Paul as trapped by his historical context?

Song’s argument is also problematic because in the quotation from page 76 given above he seems to suggest that St. Paul was so trapped by his context that he could not have thought otherwise about same-sex relationships than he did whereas we are now free to do so.

The problem with this argument is that it does not engage with the specifics of why St. Paul wrote as he did. As numerous commentators have pointed out, St. Paul’s view of same-sex sexual activity is based on two things (a) the belief that God has created human beings to engage sexually with members of the opposite sex in accordance with his creation of human beings as male and female (this is what lies behind the argument in Romans 1:26-27) and (b) the belief that the Old Testament prohibitions on same –sex conduct in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are still authoritative even in the light of the coming of Christ (this is what lies behind 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:10). It is these two beliefs that are the context for St Paul’s teaching. What Song has to show is why these two beliefs are either wrong or somehow outdated. What does he think we now know that St. Paul did not that enables us to rightly depart from St Paul’s position?

Song’s argument also raises serious issues to do with biblical authority. If we can simply set aside the arguments of a biblical writer then what is the meaning of biblical authority? If Song’s argument is that it is the overall biblical story that is authoritative rather than St. Paul’s specific arguments this overlooks the fact that this story is something constructed from the biblical writings and therefore in order to construct this story rightly you have to take the witness of all the biblical writers into account, including the witness of St. Paul. The ‘space’ in which we live as Christian disciples has to be a space shaped by what the Bible as a whole has to say and not just parts of it.

What’s love got to do with it? – The biblical prohibitions and God’s loving purposes

Song is perfectly right to suggest that we have to give an explanation as to why the biblical prohibitions against same-sex relationships are expressions of God’s love for human beings. However, this is something that it is possible to do.

To begin with, ‘the purposes of the God of love’ that are behind God’s standards are that human beings should exercise their calling to be God’s image bearers in the world in accordance with their created nature as male and female (Genesis 1:26-28). This is the fundamental good which God wills.

The prohibitions of various forms of sexual activity contained in the Bible are for the good of society because huge amounts of empirical experience over centuries of human history shows that societies flourish most when traditional marriage is strong, when people are faithful to their marriage vows and when children are born from, and brought up by, two married parents of the opposite sex. The biblical prohibitions against all forms of sex outside marriage, same sex relationships included, are designed to protect this beneficial pattern of human behaviour. In a fallen world people will always be tempted to pursue sexual desires that are not in accord with this pattern and the biblical prohibitions are to safeguard society against this.

These prohibitions are also for the good of the individual in that by prohibiting wrong forms of behaviour they point people in the direction that they should go, which is to serve God faithfully in one of the two vocations of marriage or celibacy. Neither of these vocations are necessarily easy (virtuous living in a fallen world never is), but there is ample testimony both that that they are feasible and that they can be abundantly satisfying, even for people with same sex attraction.[4]

The ultimate human fulfilment the prohibitions point to is the same as for all biblical prohibitions. They point to the fundamental Christian pattern of death and resurrection. They point us to the fact that living out the truth of our baptism into Christ means being willing to die for self and live for God in relation to both our desires and our behaviour (Romans 6:1-14).

Should we be willing to live with difference?

The answer to Song’s question as to why churches have been able to tolerate pacifist groups but not groups arguing for the legitimisation of same-sex sexual relationships is the different status of the two issues. For those who take a just war position those who are pacifist may be wrong but the outworking of their mistaken beliefs is not sinful. It is not sinful not to take part in war. On the other hand, for those who take a traditional view of Christian sexual ethics same-sex sexual activity is both theologically wrong and sinful and it is for that reason that it cannot simply be accepted.

In terms of the concession that Song is seeking from those on the conservative side it is certainly fair to ask that those exploring alternative positions should not be too quickly condemned. However, the debate about the interpretation of the Bible in relation to same sex relations has been running in the Church of England for over sixty years and a review of the debate shows that the same arguments tend to keep on coming back. Consequently conservatives may be forgiven for being sceptical about whether any new proposal is genuinely new or whether it is really just an old argument in a new guise.

In response to Song’s question about how one might go about deciding whether a proposed interpretation ‘is at least a legitimate one’ the answer is that this is not in principle a difficult issue. A proposed interpretation can claim some degree of legitimacy if it can be plausibly shown to make grammatical sense of a passage of Scripture, makes sense in terms of the literary and historical context of that passage, and does not contradict any other part of Scripture. The conservative case is that the arguments that have been offered thus far in favour of a reading of Scripture that allows for same-sex sexual activity fail on all three counts.

Assessing the three ways forward

Turning to the three possible ways forward that Song identifies, correlating covenant partnership and civil partnership would involve the Church giving additional legitimacy to a form of life that gives affirmation to same-sex sexual relationships. For the reasons explored in this paper this is something the Church cannot rightly do.

Regarding covenant partnerships as marriage would involve diluting the biblical understanding of marriage since it would mean regarding same-sex relationships as being truly marriage, which from a biblical perspective they can never be.

Subsuming marriage under the category of covenant partnership would be to abolish a biblical ordinance in favour of a way of life with no biblical warrant and would, as before, involve giving recognition to same sex sexual relationships.

None of these three options are therefore ones that the Church should support.

Does the Church need to reimagine?

Finally, it is not clear why the Church should need to ‘reimagine’ its relation to our culture. The Church’s calling remains what it has always been, to bear truthful witness to Christ in the power of the Spirit on the basis of the teaching of Holy Scripture and to be faithful in living in accordance with that teaching itself. The Church’s calling is not something that it is free to reinvent. It is something that was given to it long ago by the risen Christ. Its only choice is whether to be obedient to it or not.

M B Davie 29.11.14 (This review was originally produced for the Church of England Evangelical Council)

[1] C S Lewis Mere Christianity Glasgow: Fontana 1955 p.86

[2] Lambeth Conference 1930, Resolution 15.

[3] See for example J Boswell Same Sex unions in Premodern Europe New York: Villard Books 1994

and A Bray ‘Wedded friendships’ The Tablet 4 August 2001 pp.1108-9

[4] For such testimony see the Living Out website at http://www.livingout.org/

A review of Alan Wilson ‘More Perfect Union’

Introduction

The Bishop of Buckingham, Alan Wilson, has become known as the bishop who has broken ranks with the official policy of the Church of England by arguing that there should be complete acceptance by Christians of same-sex relationships and that ‘marriage’[1] between two people of the same sex should be viewed as a theologically valid form of Christian marriage.

This is not the first book written by a Church of England bishop in support of same-sex relationships. Back in 2000 the then Bishop of Swindon, Michael Doe, argued for a more accepting attitude towards such relationships in his book Seeking the Truth in Love. However, since 2000 the creation of Civil Partnerships and the legalisation of same-sex ‘marriages’ have increased the pressure on the Church of England to change its position on sexual ethics and its view of marriage and there is no doubt that Alan Wilson’s book will become widely seen as providing a manifesto for such a change in the same way that Bishop John Robinson’s book Honest to God became the manifesto for the ‘new theology’ back in the 1960s.

This being the case, it is incumbent on those who believe that it would be wrong for the Church of England to change its teaching about sexual-ethics and marriage to explain why they are not persuaded by the arguments put forward by Wilson and the purpose of this review is to provide such an explanation.

The argument that Wilson puts forward in More Perfect Union has a number of strands.

    1. (Chapter 2) Developments in biology mean that we can no longer view human beings in simple binary terms as either male or female and this in turn means that we can no longer see same-sex orientation as ‘unnatural’ or ‘intrinsically disordered.’  This means that we are free to judge same-sex relationships by exactly the same criteria as heterosexual ones. ‘Do they display virtues of permanence, stability, mutual love and fidelity? Relationships are better judged by their fruit than by their configuration’ (p.34)
    2. (Chapter 3) Equality is at the heart of the biblical story, ‘the ground bass of the Bible story from the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem’ (p.53). The refusal to accept same-sex marriage is a refusal to accept equality in a way that is akin to the refusal of the South African state to accept non-white people as equal citizens during the apartheid era.
    3. Chapter 4) We need to read biblical verses in relation to their particular historical and literary contexts and in relation to the message of the Bible as whole. The history of Christian attitudes to slavery and corporal and capital punishment point us to two ways of approaching the Bible. There is the ‘narrow gauge’ approach that focuses on particular texts and there is the ‘broad gauge’ approach that approaches these texts, and where necessary qualifies them, in the light of the Bible’s overall teaching
    4. (Chapter 5) The ‘clobber texts’ that have shaped the way that Christians have viewed homosexual people (Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, I Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10) do not, on close examination, provide a clear condemnation of same-sex relationships today.  Furthermore, they have to be read in the light of Jesus’ teaching about a tree being known by the quality of its fruit (Matthew 7:16-18) and this means reading the Scriptures in the light of God’s love. ‘The Scriptures cannot bear bitter fruit. The discipline that enables Christians to hear the word of God according to the love of God is not woolly liberalism, but obedience to the New Testament injunction to discern the spirits and make love our aim’ (p.81)
    5. (Chapters 6 & 7) Both in the Bible and in our society the forms that marriage have taken and the understandings of the nature of marriage have changed and developed.  In the Bible marriage in its various forms is ‘an externally defined social institution that is drawn upon to illustrate God’s relationships with his people, about which regulations are made, but, more importantly, its spiritual and relational aspects developed beyond considerations of sex, gender or children’ (p.99).  The history of marriage in our society shows us that marriage ‘is not defined by Church or State, but by the lives of people who marry according to the social and personal mores of the time and place’ (p.121). The medieval idea of marriage as an ‘indissoluble sacrament’ has become an ‘empty shell’ and has been superseded by the Puritan concept of it as ‘personal partnership of equals’ (p.121)
    6. (Chapter 8) The global Church should adopt a Romans 14 approach to issues of sexuality by allowing different approaches to co-exist. This would enable the churches ‘to be agents of mutual understanding and reconciliation rather than creating hate and alienation between themselves’ (p.146)
    7. (Chapter 9) Same-sex marriages will enrich rather than diminish the institution of marriage. The distinctive thing that should mark out a Christian marriage is not the sex of the couple involved, or whether their relationship is open to the procreation of children, but ‘the quality of self-giving love between the parties’ (p.163), something that is equally possible in a same-sex ‘marriage.’

Strand 1 – the argument about biology.

If we now consider each of these strands in turn we find, firstly, that Wilson’s argument that we can no longer view human beings in simple binary terms for biological reasons is flawed both scientifically and theologically.

Science.

It is flawed scientifically for a number of reasons:

  • As the Pilling report notes ‘the great majority of human beings are unambiguously either male or female in terms of their chromosomes and the primary and secondary sexual characteristics that their bodies display.’ The variations in human brains to which Wilson refers (page 26 fn. 4) do not negate this truth. Estimates of the number of people with intersex conditions very between 0.018% of the population to 1.7% depending on the definition of intersex that is used. It is therefore illegitimate to appeal to intersex conditions, as Wilson does, to argue that we can no longer think of being either male or female as the human norm.
  • The existence of gender identity dysphoria (in which people feel they are trapped in a body of the wrong sex) and same-sex attraction does not disprove a binary male-female divide since the vast majority of people with gender dysphoria and same-sex attraction are biologically unambiguously either male or female and the vast majority of people with same-sex attraction view themselves as either male or female.
  • Biologically, human sexuality is oriented towards reproduction. The sex organs of the human body are designed in a way that leads towards the procreation of children and human sexual attraction works on the biological level to bring about procreation. When human beings become sexually aroused they become aroused in a way that is designed to bring about reproductive intercourse. Furthermore reproductive intercourse requires the activity of both sexes. That is why same-sex couples cannot have children of their own and have to rely on either adoption, egg donation or surrogate motherhood.
  • What Wilson dismisses as the ‘Janet and John’ view that human beings are either male or female is in fact, according to biology, the overwhelming human norm and the basis for human sexuality. An alien visitor encountering human beings for the first time would view them as a species that exists in two sexes and which requires two sexes to reproduce.
  • Wilson goes against the available evidence when he says that attempts to change people’s
  • sexual orientation have ‘almost universally failed’(p.28). There were a series of well documented reports from the 1940s to the 1970s of successful therapy to help people deal with unwanted sexual attraction. The controversy about such therapy means that there have been no controlled randomized trials in this area since then, but such evidence as there is suggests that such therapy can be successful in the case of some people, including people who are definitely homosexual rather than bisexual.

Theology.

It is flawed theologically because it ignores the clear teaching of Genesis 1 and 2, echoed in Romans 5:1-2, and reiterated by Jesus in his teaching on marriage (Matthew 19:4, Mark 10:6) that God chose to create people as male and female. Wilson ignores these texts totally in spite of the fact that they are fundamental to biblical anthropology and have been fundamental to subsequent Christian anthropology. Wilson has to face the question. If he no longer thinks that we should view human beings in binary terms then what does he think we should do with these texts?

It is also flawed theologically because it takes no account of the Fall. The Bible and the Christian faith teaches us that we live in a world that is not as it should be and that this fact is reflected not just on the spiritual level, but on the biological level as well. That is why, although human beings were designed by God to see, hear and walk there are people who for congenital, medical or accidental reasons are blind, deaf or lame. The fact that Jesus came and healed the blind, the deaf and the lame indicates that how things are in a Fallen world is not necessarily how God intends them to be. Similarly, the fact that some people feel a disjunction between their bodies and who they truly are and the fact that some people are sexually attracted to those of the same sex does not mean that this is the result of the diversity of creation rather than a result of the Fall.

Strand 2 – the argument about equality.

Turning to the issue of equality, the cogency of Wilson’s argument depends on what is meant by equality.

In Scripture all human beings, regardless of their sex, race, or class are created by God in His image and likeness and they have the possibility of participating in God’s eternal kingdom through the work of Christ. It is this equality to which St Paul refers in Galatians 3:28 and which gives every human being an intrinsic dignity which demands respect. That is why the first Christians gradually came to do away with the markers that separated Jews from Gentiles (such as the Jewish food laws and the requirement for circumcision) and why Christians are (or should be) opposed to sexism, racism or class based oppression.

However, it does not follow from the intrinsic dignity of every human being on the basis of creation and redemption that all human desires (however strongly felt), or all forms of human sexual activity, are equally acceptable before God and therefore should equally be accepted by the Church. If this was the case it would be impossible to make sense of what Jesus says about the desires of the human heart that defile people in God’s sight (Matthew 15:19-20, Mark 7:21-23) and it would also be impossible to make sense of the numerous biblical commands and injunctions that say that certain forms of behaviour (including sexual behaviour) are unacceptable for God’s people.

Wilson’s argument that it is wrong to try to ‘hate the sin, but love the sinner’ because it is a failure of love to fail to take ‘anyone’s self-identity seriously’ (p.47) is problematic because this is in fact exactly what God does. In the words of St Augustine, commenting on Romans 5:8:

…in a manner wondrous and divine, he loved us even when he hated us. For he hated us when we were such as he had not made us, and yet because our iniquity had not destroyed his work in every respect, he knew in regard to each of us, to hate what we had made, and to love what he had made. (Tract in John 110)

What Wilson is doing is confusing love with acceptance and affirmation. According to classical Christian theology, love, whether God’s love for us, or our consequent love for other people, is not simply about acceptance and affirmation. It is instead desiring that someone should flourish as the person God made them to be and taking the appropriate action to achieve that end. It follows that if, as Christian theology has traditionally claimed, human beings were created by God to engage in sexual activity solely within a married relationship within someone of the opposite sex, it would be a failure of love to simply affirm or accept someone in a same-sex relationship. This would not encourage them to undertake the change necessary to become the person God made them to be.

Strand 3 –how to read the Bible.

On the issue of how we should read the Bible, Wilson is right to argue that we need to read particular texts in their literary and historical context and in the light of the Bible’s overall message. Unfortunately what he does not seem to have registered is that the overall message of the Bible is one that leaves no space for the affirmation of same-sex sexual relationships.

This is a point that is well made by the American writer Michael Brown in his book Can you be Gay and Christian? He asks the question why there are only a tiny number of biblical verses that directly address the issue of same-sex sexual relationships. His answer to this question is to draw an analogy with a book of recipes for sugar free puddings that has an introduction that explains why sugar should be avoided. The book would not need to constantly say ‘no sugar’ because this would be the point of the book. In a similar way, he says:

The Bible is a heterosexual book, and that is why it does not need to constantly speak against homosexual practice. It is heterosexual from beginning to end, and my heart truly goes out to ‘gay Christians’ trying to read the Bible as ‘their book.’ For them it cannot be read as it is; it must be adjusted, adapted, and changed to fit homosexual couples and their families. In short ‘gay Christians’ must read God-approved homosexuality into the biblical text since it simply isn’t there.

And this is the pattern throughout the entire Bible in book after book.

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

The Bible is a heterosexual book, and that is a simple, pervasive, undeniable fact that cannot be avoided, and, to repeat, this observation has nothing to do with a disputed passage, verse or word, it is a universal, all pervasive, completely transparent fact. (pp.88-89)

Because this is the case, whether you engage in a ‘narrow gauge’ study of the specific texts that speak about same-sex sexual activity, or a broad gauge study of the Bible as whole the message is the same. Because of the way that God created human beings as male and female there is no legitimate space for such activity, let alone for same-sex ‘marriage.’

Strand 4 – interpreting the key biblical texts.

Moving on to what Wilson says about the five specific biblical texts that he looks at, what we find is that he misinterprets each of the five texts.

Genesis 19

On Genesis 19 Wilson argues that:

The prime sin of Sodom arose from the intent of the rapists. This was a gang rape, not an orgy, which indicated a generally sinful way of life within the city. Its essence was moral recklessness and violence, than its sexual orientation. The gang rape of female strangers would have been as bad. (p.70)

However the idea that the men of Sodom were intent upon rape is something that Wilson (like many others) had read into the text. As Victor Hamilton has pointed out in his commentary on Genesis, Hebrew has a vocabulary to describe rape and it is not used in this text. All that Genesis 19:5 tells us is that the men of Sodom wanted to have sexual relations with (‘know’) Lot’s visitors.

The fact that the text leaves it at that and that it says nothing about the motivation of the crowd, or, about whether they were homosexual or bisexual, is theologically significant. In order to make it clear that Sodom was a gravely sinful place all the text has to say is that its inhabitants wanted to have sex with men. That in itself constitutes a wicked act (Genesis 19:6) which illustrates the more general wickedness for which Sodom, Gomorrah, and two neighboring cities are going to be destroyed.

In Genesis 19, and also in Judges 19, the desire for homosexual sex is in itself evidence of the wider sinfulness of a society that has turned from God. This is the same point that is made on an even wider canvas by Paul in Romans 1:26-27.

Wilson is also wrong to suggest that the author of Jude 7 thinks that the sin of Sodom has to do with sex with angels. This reading is not demanded by the vocabulary or grammar of Jude 7 and is a reading that pits Jude 7 against the fact that in Genesis the angels are thought to be men, that introduces a reading of Genesis 19 that is at odds with subsequent Jewish interpretations of the Sodom story both in the Bible and in other Jewish sources, and that contradicts the way that Jude is understood by Peter 2:7 -10 which talks about the ‘licentiousness’ and ‘lust of defiling passion’ which were characteristics of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, but says nothing about sex with angels.

The most likely readings of Jude 7 are either Peter Davids’ suggestion that ‘going after other flesh’ means ‘desiring homosexual sex’ or Robert Gagnon’s grammatically possible suggestion that it means that ‘in the course of committing sexual immorality they inadvertently lusted after angels.’ In both cases homosexual desire is seen as a reason for God’s judgment.

Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13

On Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 Wilson suggests that ‘the essence of the offence seems to be a man taking a female sexual position in bed with another man.’ In other words, what Leviticus is talking about is anal penetration and all other forms of gay sex (and all forms of lesbian sex) do not fall within the scope of this prohibition.

However, as Richard Davidson notes in his exhaustive study of the Old Testament material on sexuality, Flame of Yahweh, the vocabulary used in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 is in fact general in character. He writes that is has been suggested that the phrase that is used ‘the lying of a woman’ includes ‘only homosexual acts that approximate heterosexual coitus and include penile intromission, but the Hebrew is clearly a euphemism for sexual intercourse (cf the female equivalent of this passage in Judg 21:11-12). Thus this passage is a permanent prohibition of all sexual intercourse with another male (zākār). This would also prohibit pedophilia, since the term zākār refers to any male, not just a grown man’ (p.150).

On the question of whether the text only forbids gay rather than lesbian sex, Davidson may well be right in his suggestions that a prohibition of lesbianism may be implicit in the general prohibition against following the practices of the Egyptians and the Canaanites (Leviticus 18:3) as the Rabbis thought, or that the prohibitions in the masculine singular may have been seen as applying generically to both men and women. Certainly St. Paul sees lesbianism as forbidden alongside male homosexuality, while would seem to indicate that he understood the Levitical prohibitions inclusively.

Wilson also fails to note that the presupposition underlying the various prohibitions of sexual activity in Leviticus 18 and 20 (as also what is said about sexual activity in the Torah as a whole) is marriage between one man and one woman in line with the way that God created the human race. Almost all the prohibited sexual offences are offences because in various ways they involve sex outside this context, sex before marriage, sex with someone other than your wife, sex with someone of the same sex, or sex with another species. The one exception is the offering of children to Moloch which is wrong use of sex because it is a misuse of God’s calling to reproduce (Genesis 1:28). The issue in Leviticus is therefore the way that God has created the world and the calling of human beings to behave in a way that corresponds to that.

Romans 1:26-27

On Romans 1:26-27 Wilson argues that the term ‘nature’ in these verses ‘denotes human convention, custom or expectation’ and ‘can only refer directly to people we would call ‘bisexual’ ‘(p.76). He also says that is ‘hard to see’ how what St. Paul says can apply to non-idolatrous Christians today, because what Paul see as the ‘crime’ is not homosexual conduct but idolatry (p.77).

In relation to the first point, Wilson’s argument contains internal contradictions. Firstly, the argument that Romans 1:26-27 only applies to bisexuals goes back to Derek Bailey’s contention that ‘nature’ means the personal orientation of the individuals concern. For Bailey this meant that only men and women who were naturally heterosexual could acts against nature in the way described by St. Paul. If Wilson is following Bailey then it would not be against the nature of bisexuals to engage in sex with members of the same sex because that would be natural for them. Secondly, if ‘nature’ means the orientation of the people concerned then it cannot mean ‘human, convention, custom or expectation.’ Wilson cannot have it both ways.

Moreover, the vast majority of commentators on Romans hold that neither of these meanings of ‘nature’ is the correct one. They would argue that both the focus in Romans 1 on the witness to God borne by the created order and the way that ‘nature’ was used by Jewish and Greco-Roman writers shows that ‘nature’ refers to the way things have been created by God.

As Ian Paul explains in his Grove booklet Same-sex Unions, when Paul talks about ‘nature’ he is not referring to the experiences of sexual attraction of particular individuals or their ‘innate preferences.’ Instead, what he is referring to is:

…the way the world was meant to be, as created by God; his categories are theological, not psychological and corporate rather than individual. It is ‘the order intended by the creator, the order that is manifest in God’s creation.’ In the same way that Ps 106 tells the corporate story of the failure of God’s people. Paul is telling here the cosmic story of the failure of humanity. And he is not simply referring to culture; he does appear to think (in 1 Corinthians 11:14) that women having long hair is the way that God intended it. Instead he is borrowing terms from existing ethical thinking (particularly in Stoicism) about what is ‘natural (kata phusin) and what is unnatural (para phusin), which therefore rejects God’s intention in creation (p.25).

In addition, contrary to Wilson’s second point, St. Paul is not suggesting that only idolaters engage in same-sex activity or that the real sin is not same-sex activity but idolatry. As Tom Wright puts it in his commentary on Romans in his Paul for Everyone series the point that St. Paul is making:

…is not simply ‘we Jews don’t approve of this,’ or, ‘relationships like this are always unequal or exploitative.’ His point is, ‘this not what males and females were made for.’ Nor is he suggesting that everyone who feels sexually attracted to members of their own sex, or everyone who engages in actual same-sex relations, has got to that point through committing specific acts of idolatry. Nor, again, does he suppose that all those who find themselves in that situation have arrived there by a specific choice to give up heterosexual possibilities. Reading the text like that reflects a modern individualism rather than Paul’s larger, all-embracing perspective. Rather, he is talking about the human race as a whole. His point is not that ‘there are some exceptionally wicked people out there who do these revolting things’ but ‘the fact that such clear distortions of the creator’s male-plus-female intention occur in the world indicates that the human race as a whole is guilty of a character twisting idolatry.’ He sees the practice of same-sex relations as a sign that the human world in general is out of joint. (pp.22-23)

This means that Wilson’s non-idolatrous Christian same-sex couple are still behaving wrongly if they engage in same-sex sexual activity because they are not living in the way for which God created them, but are rather giving expression by their sinful activity to the way in which the human race as a whole has turned away from its creator.

1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10

On 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 Wilson argues that St. Paul is referring ‘to men who practise abusive or exploitative sex, perhaps some form of trafficking’ (p.79). This argument ignores two key facts. The first is that the two Greek terms that St. Paul uses, arsenokoitai and malakoi, are general terms for active and passive same-sex sexual activity. They carry no overtones of sexual exploitation. The second is that there is nothing in the context to suggest exploitation. The vice lists in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 are based on the second table of the Ten Commandments and the references to same-sex activity come under the scope of the prohibition of adultery in the seventh commandment. This means that such activity is wrong because it involves sexual immorality not because it involves some form of exploitation. The references to robbery and kidnapping which the proponents of the exploitation thesis appeal to (on the grounds that people were stolen to act as male prostitutes) come later in these vice lists and refer to separate and distinct offences that violate the eighth commandment against theft.

Wilson is stating the obvious when he says that the New Testament passages that refer to same-sex activity ‘can be understood in many different ways’ (p.79). All texts are open to multiple interpretations. The question is whether they should be interpreted along the lines Wilson suggests. For the reasons given above the answer to this question is ‘no’.

Furthermore, Wilson’s suggested interpretation is not in accordance with the principle of love to which he appeals. As love is about helping people to become the people God made them to be so a loving interpretation is a truthful one because only a truthful interpretation will help people to understand properly how God wants them to live.

Strand 5 – the way marriage has changed and developed.

  • In the Bible

Moving on to the way in which marriage has changed and developed, it is true that we do see a variety of different forms of relationships between men and women in Scripture. However it is important that we are precise about this. Wilson suggests that there ‘are at least seven different definitions of marriage’ (p.84) and there is a famous infographic on the internet (http://visual.ly/marriage-according-bible ) that goes one better and suggests that there are eight versions. However, whether we consider Wilson’s seven variations or the eight on the infographic, in both cases two points stand out. First, all of the relationships that are mentioned are heterosexual. Marriage in the Bible is exclusively male-female. Secondly, with the exclusion of polygamy, all the forms of relationship are variations of heterosexual monogamy. There are all variations of a marital relationship between one man and one woman with the differences being the circumstances in which the marriages are entered into and whether there is a concubine(s) alongside a wife (for this point see the helpful response to the marriage infographic at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JyjMMbB5KV4).

The big biblical picture is that in the creation narrative in Genesis 2:18-25 marriage is established as a permanent, heterosexual, monogamous relationship which is freely entered into. From the time of Lamech (Genesis 4:19) polygamy and concubinage are found, but they are seen as being a result of the Fall and the Old Testament ‘consistently condemns plural marriage either explicitly or implicitly’ (Davidson p.211). The Old Testament also allows for divorce, but this is because of ‘your hardness of heart’ (Matthew 19:8) rather than because it is what God desires. In the New Testament the standard for marriage is reset to the norm established in Eden and marriage is exclusively seen as permanent, monogamous, heterosexual relationship that people chose to enter into or not (see 1 Corinthians 7). Also, it is not true that in the Old Testament a wife ‘is defined as her husband’s property’ (Wilson p.86). Davidson examines this claim in detail and shows that it has no substance (pp.249-51, and chapters 8 and 12).

As Wilson correctly notes, Jesus and St. Paul teach that marriage is part of the temporal rather than the eternal order (Matthew 22:30, I Corinthians 7), that even the marital relationship has to take second place to a willingness to follow Jesus (Matthew 10:35-37) and that celibacy is a legitimate alternative to marriage for the Christian disciple (Matthew 19:10-12, 1 Corinthians 7). However, none of this means that either Jesus or St. Paul (or anyone else in the New Testament) allowed for any other form of marital relationship other than the one established at creation or that there is the slightest evidence that they relaxed the Old Testament prohibitions against sex outside the marital relationship. Indeed, Jesus went beyond the teaching of the Old Testament in warning against not only illegitimate sexual activity, but also illegitimate sexual desire (Matthew 5:27-30).

What all this means is that in the Bible marriage is not defined by the changing social mores of the ancient world, but by an understanding that God has created men and women to relate together sexually in monogamous marriage, that variations from this pattern are due to the Fall and that in the New Testament there are two clear alternatives, permanent, heterosexual, monogamous marriage or celibacy.

It is true, as Wilson says, that in a number of places in the Bible (e.g. Isaiah 54:4-8, Hosea 2:16-20, Ephesians 5:21-31, Revelation 21:2 and 22:17) marriage is seen as an analogue for the relationship between God and Israel and Christ and His Church. However, this does not mean, as Wilson suggests, that this points to a form of marriage that is not defined ‘by sex, gender and reproduction.’ The only form of marriage in Scripture that is seen as a proper symbol for God’s faithful, self-giving love for His people is sexually faithful, monogamous heterosexual marriage. Sex outside marriage is seen as an expression of the way in which God’s people have turned away from Him (see Hosea 1-9, Ezekiel 16) and same is true of same-sex activity in both its lesbian and gay forms (Romans 1:26-27).

  • In the history of our society

If we turn to the history of marriage in our society what we find that it is indeed the case that there has been change and development. Different aspects of marriage have been emphasised in different points in history, how marriage has been entered into has varied, who is allowed to be married has varied, the kind of behaviour permitted within the marital relationship has varied and there has been variation over whether divorce is allowed and under what circumstances.

However, it is simply untrue to say that marriage has not been defined by ‘Church or State.’ Both the Church and the state have laid down laws about what constitutes marriage and who may be married and in what circumstances. Furthermore, the definition of marriage since Saxon times has been that summarised in Canon B.30, ‘a union permanent and life-long, for better or worse, till death do them part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side.’ It has also been the expectation that, except in the case of elderly married couples, marriage would lead to having children. It is only in very recent years, with the growing pressure for the recognition of same-sex relationships, that this basic, biblically based, definition of marriage has been challenged. The study of history shows that same-sex ‘marriage’ is in fact an entirely novel idea. It is a revolution in the understanding of the fundamental nature of marriage, a revolution that involves a departure from the teaching of the Bible.

It is also worth noting that contrary to what Wilson says on page 121, UK law does not forbid ‘arranged marriage.’ An arranged marriage which has the free consent of the parties involved is perfectly legal. It is ‘forced marriage’ where the consent is lacking that is illegal (see https://www.gov.uk/forced-marriage).

Strand 6 – handling differences over same-sex relationships.

On the question of how to handle the difference between churches over same-sex relationships, there are two key points which Wilson has overlooked.

The first is that while the concept of ‘adiaphora’ – things indifferent – means that it can often be legitimate to simply agree to disagree in the way that St. Paul recommends in 1 Corinthians 14, nevertheless, as the Windsor Report of 2004 notes:

This does not mean, however, that either for Paul or in Anglican theology all things over which Christians in fact disagree are automatically to be placed into the category of ‘adiaphora’. It has never been enough to say that we must celebrate or at least respect ‘difference’ without further ado. Not all ‘differences’ can be tolerated. (We know this well enough in the cases of, say, racism or child abuse; we would not say “some of us are racists, some of us are not, so let’s celebrate our diversity”). This question is frequently begged in current discussions, as for instance when people suggest without further argument, in relation to a particular controversial issue, that it should not be allowed to impair the Church’s unity, in other words that the matter in question is not as serious as some suppose. In the letters already quoted, Paul is quite clear that there are several matters – obvious examples being incest (1 Corinthians 5) and lawsuits between Christians before non-Christian courts (1 Corinthians 6) – in which there is no question of saying “some Christians think this, other Christians think that, and you must learn to live with the difference”. On the contrary: Paul insists that some types of behaviour are incompatible with inheriting God’s coming kingdom, and must not therefore be tolerated within the Church. ‘Difference’ has become a concept within current postmodern discourse which can easily mislead the contemporary western church into forgetting the principles, enshrined in scripture and often re-articulated within Anglicanism, for distinguishing one type of difference from another. (Section B.90)

Secondly, as the Windsor Report goes on to say, in 1 Corinthians 8-10 St Paul lays down another principle that needs to be taken into account, that of not causing a stumbling block to our fellow believers

Even when the notion of ‘adiaphora’ applies, it does not mean that Christians are left free to pursue their own personal choices without restriction. Paul insists that those who take what he calls the “strong” position, claiming the right to eat and drink what others regard as off limits, must take care of the “weak”, those who still have scruples of conscience about the matters in question – since those who are lured into acting against conscience are thereby drawn into sin. Paul does not envisage this as a static situation. He clearly hopes that his own teaching, and mutual acceptance within the Christian family, will bring people to one mind. But he knows from pastoral experience that people do not change their minds overnight on matters deep within their culture and experience.

Whenever, therefore, a claim is made that a particular theological or ethical stance is something ‘indifferent’, and that people should be free to follow it without the Church being thereby split, there are two questions to be asked. First, is this in fact the kind of matter which can count as ‘inessential’, or does it touch on something vital? Second, if it is indeed ‘adiaphora’, is it something that, nevertheless, a sufficient number of other Christians will find scandalous and offensive, either in the sense that they will be led into acting against their own consciences or that they will be forced, for conscience’s sake, to break fellowship with those who go ahead? If the answer to the latter question is ‘yes’, the biblical guidelines insist that those who have no scruples about the proposed action should nevertheless refrain from going ahead. (Sections B 92-93)

Wilson’s proposal fails on both these counts.

There is no question that for millions of Christians the acceptance of same-sex relationships by the Church is indeed ‘scandalous and offensive’ and it follows that if, as Wilson argues, it is a matter that is adiaphora those that favour such a course of action should ‘refrain from going ahead.’

However, it is in fact impossible to argue that same-sex relationships are a matter that is adiaphora. According to the witness of the New Testament sexual immorality, of which same-sex sexual activity is one form, is something that is contrary to basic Christian teaching (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8), that defiles people before God (Mark 7:21-23), that is a barrier to inheriting God’s kingdom and that contradicts the new life of holiness that is God’s gift to believers, through Christ and the Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

Strand 7 –the impact of same-sex ‘marriage’ and what makes a Christian marriage distinctive.

The final strand of Wilson’s argument also overlooks some important issues.

First, his contention that same-sex ‘marriages’ will enrich rather than diminish the institution of marriage fails to take into account three serious concerns:

  • That rather than leading same-sex couples to adopt a less promiscuous and more conventional life style same-sex ‘marriage’ will over time lead to wider social acceptance of the more ‘open’ forms of sexual relationship that have typified large parts of the gay community.
  • That the establishment of same-sex families will have a detrimental effect on any children involved – an issue raised, for instance by the study on new family structures undertaken by the American sociologist Mark Regenerus.
  • That the acceptance of same-sex ‘marriages’ will inevitably lead to moves towards the acceptance of other forms of non-conventional marriages such as polygamous marriages, incestuous marriages and temporary marriages on the grounds that these can also be examples of loving relationships. Such moves are already beginning in other parts of the world.

Wilson fails to address, or even acknowledge, any of these concerns.[2]

Secondly, he does not address the issue of the greater public acceptance of homosexuality which will result from the legalisation of same-sex ‘marriage.’ The idea that the number of people involved in same-sex activity is a fixed quantity is a fallacy. The reality is that the greater the public acceptance the more likely it is that people who would not otherwise have done so will engage in same-sex activity. That is why historically in some societies same-sex activity has been widespread and in others it has been almost non-existent. The growth in the number of people involved in same-sex activity would not, of course, worry Wilson, but it is a legitimate concern for those who believe such activity to be morally wrong and harmful to the people involved.

Thirdly, his claim that the distinctive thing about Christian marriage is simply ‘the self-giving love between the parties’ fails to do justice to the fact that a Christian marriage, like any other form of Christian discipleship, will be a way of life that is lived in obedience to the will of God. As has been argued throughout this review, God’s will with on this matter is clear both from Scripture and from the witness of nature. God has created human beings as male and female and his will is that they should relate to each other sexually in an exclusive, life-long, heterosexual union that is open in principle to the procreation of children. A same-sex ‘marriage’ is by its very nature contrary to this and can never therefore constitute a genuinely Christian marriage.

Conclusion

Having looked critically at the seven strands of Wilson’s argument it has become clear that none of them stands up to scrutiny. His argument for the acceptance of same-sex ‘marriages’ is therefore completely unconvincing both in its parts and as a whole. His case simply does not add up.

M B Davie 13.11.14   (This review was originally produced for the Church of England Evangelical Council)

 

[1] Some readers of this review may find the quote marks round references to same-sex ‘marriages’ offensive. I apologise for the offence, but it is necessary to keep on marking out that from a traditional Christian view point these are not truly marriages (as the BCP marriage service puts it ‘so many as are coupled together otherwise than God’s word doth allow are not joined together by God; neither is their Matrimony lawful’) and the use of quote marks is one way of doing this.

[2] For more on these concerns see the helpful You Tube video ‘Making marriage meaningless’ at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1QNxVbE6Bvc