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/

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