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

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