Divine commands, ethics and same-sex relationships

The aim of this paper

An essay by James Harper entitled ‘Ian Paul and moral arguments against homosexuality’ was recently posted on the Thinking Anglicans website.[1] This paper is a response to that essay.

The aim this paper is not to defend Paul against the criticisms of him made by Harper in his essay. Paul is entirely capable of making his own response to these should he wish to do so. Its aim is instead to explore the fundamental issues raised by Harper’s paper and to show why, in the light of these, the case he makes for the moral acceptability of same-sex relationships is not convincing.

The heart of Harper’s case

The heart of Harper’s essay is the claim that those who believe same-sex relationships to be morally wrong have to either ‘show pretty clearly why homosexuality violates moral standards’ or ‘appeal to pure Divine Command theory’ and say that homosexuality is wrong simply and solely because God says so in the Bible.

According to Harper, in order to assess whether a form of behaviour violates moral standards we should apply the tests used in ‘modern moral philosophy.’ Applying these tests, he argues, involves: ‘weighing up the good and bad consequences of an act, considering rights and responsibilities of those involved, and applying rules and principles which we generally believe to be important.’

Applying these criteria, Harper contends that the good consequences of people being in homosexual relationships is that they obtain the benefits of ‘intimate loving relationships’ which he describes as ‘happiness, support, security, warmth, passion, zest for life etc.’

The bad consequences that have been suggested are, he says, ‘vague and unexplored correlations between being gay and higher incidences of mental health [problems] or IPV [intimate partner violence].’  In his view even if such correlations could be shown to exist:

‘….they do not on any reasonable moral view stand any chance of making homosexuality wrong. To do that, gay relationships would need to bring with them a profound and incurable risk of destruction, injury, death or abuse, to the point where it would simply be necessary to contain ones sexuality- to restrict one’s very humanity- in order to avoid severely harming oneself and others. I do not envy anyone trying to defend such a claim.’

In relation to responsibilities Harper argues that ‘Gay people choose to accept any risks there may be, just as straight people accept risks in their relationships and in other areas of life.’ Right come into the picture because human beings ‘have the moral right to realise their inherent capacities for love and happiness- and that’s a right which is very hard indeed to override.’

Why Harper’s case requires Divine Command Theory

To quote David Baggett and Jerry Walls in their book Good God – the theistic foundations of morality, Divine Command Theory holds that ‘God’s commands dictate what is moral.’[2] Although Harper is dismissive of Divine Command Theory, in actual fact his case for the moral acceptability of same-sex relationships depends on this theory being true.

To understand why this is the case we need to take a step back and ask why it is reasonable to say that there are authoritative moral standards which we can appeal to in order to determine whether any given form of behaviour is good or bad.

A secular ideology which denies the existence of God law fails to provide a strong and coherent basis for affirming the existence of authoritative moral standards by which to make such a judgement. In a famous passage in his book River Out of Eden the atheist author Richard Dawkins declares:

‘The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A.E. Housman put it:‘For Nature, heartless, witless Nature will neither know nor care.’  DNA neither knows nor cares.DNA just is. And we dance to its music.’ [3]

If this view of the universe is accepted then there is no coherent basis for any form of ethics. As the Yale law professor Arthur Leff argues in his celebrated paper ‘Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law’, in the absence of any transcendent moral authority, any objective standard of good or evil, what is left is the arbitrary choice of either the individual or the state. Leff’s argument is helpfully summarised by Andy Bannister as follows:

‘ …[Leff] points out that any moral claims (e.g. ‘You ought to help old ladies across the road’; ‘You ought not to poke badgers with a stick’;  ‘Generosity is good’; ‘Paris Hilton is bad’) – are authority claims, and to any authority claim we can respond like the school bully or the town drunk and cry, ‘Yeah? Sez who?’  In the absence of God, says Leff, there are but two options: you can turn every individual person into a little godlet, able to decide good and evil for themselves. But then who evaluates between them when there are clashes between godlet claims. Alternatively, you can turn the state into God and let it determine good and evil, but then might becomes right and you have sheer, naked brutality (and what’s wrong with government-sponsored brutality, if the state is the only moral authority?). In short, if you try this latter route, morality becomes meaningless. If you go down the former route, morality becomes impossible. And in either case, whenever another godlet, or the state, tells you that anything is good, right, or the Proper Thing To Do, you can look them squarely in the eye and sneer: ‘Really, sez who?’ Leff ends his essay by pointing out that there is only one solution to this – and that would be if goodness were something bigger than us, something outside us.  Only then could ethics, morality, and law actually work.’ [4]

According to the Bible, and Christian theism building on the Bible, the reason that ethics, morality and law actually work is that God is not absent and there is therefore a transcendent source of moral authority outside us. This means we can answer the ‘sez who?’ question by replying ‘God says.’

The appeal to God as the source of moral authority is however, often challenged on the basis of the Euthyphro dilemma, to which Harper refers in his essay. The Euthyphro dilemma is so called because it is first formulated in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro in which Socrates poses the question ‘whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.’ [5] As Louise Anthony notes:

‘Translated into contemporary terms, the question Socrates is asking is that: Are morally good actions morally good simply in virtue of God’s favouring them? Or does God favour them because they are – independently of his favouring them – morally good?’ [6]

The dilemma this question poses for those who want to appeal to God as the source of moral authority is that it appears to leave them with two problematic alternatives. If we go for the first option then we have to go down the voluntarist route favoured by thinkers such as William of Ockham and say whatever God willed would be right even if, for example, he was to command us to torture children for fun. If we go for the second option we have to say there is a standard of rightness independent of and antecedent to God (in which case God is no longer needed as the source of moral authority).  In short, we appear to be faced with either making morality arbitrary or God unnecessary.

However, as many theologians have pointed out, this dilemma is a false one. This is because God’s will cannot be separated from his nature. The reason why God would not command us to torture babies for fun is because not because he is subject to an external standard of goodness, but because what God wills is in accordance with his nature and God’s nature is perfectly good.  Thus in response to Socrates’ question we can say that good actions are favoured by God because they are in accordance with his own perfect goodness.

As Baggett and Wells note, it is because God is perfectly good as well as perfectly wise and all powerful that he rightfully possesses supreme moral authority and therefore provides the secure basis for ethics to which we can appeal in response to the challenge ‘sez who?’  They write:

‘…God has supreme, power, knowledge and goodness, and all of these underwrite his moral authority. He created us and this world and stamped us with his image, and has the power to hold us fully accountable for our actions. Since he has perfect knowledge of us, he understands perfectly what is good for us and our flourishing. Moreover, since he is perfectly good he desires our well-being and does everything short of overriding our freedom to promote it. In view of his nature as a perfect being, there are no grounds for doubting his authority. There can be no blindsidedness, no bias, no imperfect understanding, no possibility of misuse of power, or having obtained it wrongly. If all rational witholdings are blocked we ought to accept God as an authority. And part of what is involved in that is accepting his commands, unless we have good reason to do otherwise; but again, with a perfect being, there cannot possibly be good reasons to do otherwise.’ [7]

Knowing what God commands

For the reasons just outlined, a Divine Command Theory of ethics not only makes sense, but is in fact the only theory of ethics that ultimately makes sense.[8] However, if we accept it for this reason we are still left with the question of how we can determine what God commands us to do. The fact that God’s will is perfectly good cannot help to us in making ethical decisions unless we can know what his will is.

Happily, we can know what God’s will is because, as Christian theology teaches us, God has made it known to us by communicating with us in three ways:

  • God communicates with us through the world which he has made and which therefore reflects his character and purposes.
  • God communicates with us through the words of the Bible which he has caused to be written in order to make know to us what he is like, what he has done for us and how we should live in response.
  • God communicates with us through our consciences, that innate knowledge of right and wrong that we have as creatures made in God’s ‘image and likeness.’ (Genesis 1:26-27).

It is important to note, however, that in the world we currently inhabit all three forms of communication are liable to distortion.

The created order has been distorted by sin (human and angelic) and as such no longer perfectly corresponds to God’s intention. Thus God created humans to be creatures who see, but some people are blind. This means we have to be careful about simply reading God’s will off the face of creation as it currently exists.

Our understanding of the Bible can be distorted by ignorance or wilful misreading with the result that we read it in a way that does not God correspond with what God intended to say when he caused the Bible to be written.

Our consciences can become distorted so what we sincerely feel and believe to be right and wrong does not correspond with what is actually right and wrong.

In order to counteract such distortion we need to do our best to make sure that we have read the Bible in a way that corresponds to its actual intended meaning, that we have distinguished properly between God’s creation and the way it has been marred as a result of sin, and that we allowed our consciences to be corrected by the true witness of creation and the Bible.

The application of all this sexual ethics

If we apply what we have looked at thus far to the issue of sexual ethics, we find that both the witness of creation and itself, and the teaching of the Bible in Genesis 1 and 2 and Jesus’ discussion of divorce in Matthew 19:3- 12 and the parallel passages in Mark and Luke, tell us that the God who has redeemed us in Christ has created human beings as two sexes, male and female, who are biologically designed to reproduce through sexual intercourse.

A proper form of sexual ethics means living in the light of this reality. To quote Christopher Roberts is his book Creation and Covenant:

‘The same God whom we know in Christ, has in his goodness, created us as male and female. To be male or female, then, is to be blessed, for it is be something that is good. To be this sexually differentiated creature is to be something that will be redeemed and redeemed as it was made and not as some other creature; in other words, sexual difference will be present in our redemption. In other words, sexual difference is not something that human beings should attempt to ignore or deplore. Sexual differentiation is something that humans should embrace and welcome, for to do that is honour creation and anticipate redemption. Such a way of life, to which Christ calls all human beings, means to love the neighbor and enable the neighbor to be what he or she is meant to be in the sexual sphere.’ [9]

As he goes on to say:

‘God is a being-in-relation and so are we. We are male and female. There are many types of human relationships, many types of encounters between human subjectivities, but there is always this one. Sexual difference is the most primordial of the distinctions between different modes of being human, and it is the only distinction that implicates everyone. Humans can resent this distinction, and our life in this sphere can be marred by sin and imperfection, but in the end, our own humanity depends upon finding ways of life that are premised on gratitude for it. To be what we are, we must find ways of life that thank God for having made us male and female. To be fully human and follow Christ faithfully, there are many things that we must do, but among them must be some sort of embrace of sexual difference.’[10]

According to the teaching of both Genesis and Jesus in the gospels a key way in which God calls us to embrace sexual difference is through the God given institution of marriage.

Marriage as the Bible (Genesis 2:24) and the Christian tradition describes it, is an relationship between one man and one woman entered into for life which provides not only for support and companionship between men and women as they fulfil their vocation of being God’s image bearers in the world, but also provides the context for them to beget and raise children in accordance with God’s command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28).

Marriage also exists to bear witness to the love of Christ for his people (Ephesians 5:28-33) and to be a sign and foretaste of the ‘marriage of the lamb’ (Revelation 19:7), the perfect loving union between God and his human creatures that will exist in the new heaven and the new earth at the end of time.

In the Bible and the Christian tradition sexual intercourse exists within marriage as the means by which a man and woman enter into a ‘one flesh’ union with each other and are enabled to bear children.  It might be objected at this point that not all marital sex either does, or is intended to, lead to children, and the Christian Church does not for this reason say that it is wrong. The answer to this objection is that an act of sexual intercourse between a married couple may not result in children, but it can be a unitive act of love of a sort that has the potential to be generative. It thus corresponds to the purpose for which sex and marriage exists.

Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson and Robert George have a helpful analogy to illustrate this point in their 2011 article ‘What is marriage?’:

‘A baseball team has its characteristic structure largely because of its orientation to winning games; it involves developing and sharing one’s athletic skills in the way best suited for honorably winning (among other things, with assiduous practice and good sportsmanship). But such development and sharing are possible and inherently valuable for teammates even when they lose their games. Just so, marriage has its characteristic structure largely because of its orientation to procreation; it involves developing and sharing one’s body and whole self in the way best suited for honorable parenthood—among other things, permanently and exclusively. But such development and sharing, including the bodily union of the generative act, are possible and inherently valuable for spouses even when they do not conceive children. Therefore, people who can unite bodily can be spouses without children, just as people who can practice baseball can be teammates without victories on the field. Although marriage is a social practice that has its basic structure by nature whereas baseball is wholly conventional, the analogy highlights a crucial point: Infertile couples and winless baseball teams both meet the basic requirements for participating in the practice (conjugal union; practicing and playing the game) and retain their basic orientation to the fulfilment of that practice (bearing and rearing children; winning games), even if that fulfilment is never reached.’[11]

The understanding of sex which I have just outlined rules out both same-sex sex and same-sex ‘marriage’. (a) Same sex couples cannot engage in sex which corresponds to their biology as men and women. The pieces simply do not fit (which is one of the reasons that same-sex activity can be medically dangerous). (b) For this reason they cannot have a sexual union that is both unitive and potentially or actually generative. (c) For this reason their union cannot fulfil the nature or purpose of marriage.

What has been said so far in this section might seem to give no place for men and women who do not have the opportunity to enter into marriage, either through circumstance, or because of the nature of their sexual desires, to live out their creation as male and female. However, this is not the case.

The Bible tells us that human beings will live in God’s coming kingdom as bodily creatures who are male and female (as pointed to by Christ’s resurrection as a male human being) , but that in this kingdom ‘they neither marry nor are given in marriage’ (Matthew 22:30). Because humans beings will have attained the reality to which marriage points, and of which it is the foretaste, marriage itself as we know it in this world, will cease to exist.

In the words of Oliver O’Donovan:

‘To this eschatological hope the New Testament church bore witness by fostering the social conditions which could support a vocation to the single life. It conceived of marriage and singleness as alternative vocations, each a worthy form of life, the two together comprising the Christian witness to the nature of affectionate community. The one declared that God had vindicated the order of creation, the other pointed beyond it to its eschatological transformation.’ [12]

In line with the witness of the New Testament, the Christian Church down the ages has thus taught there are two equally good ways to respond God’s creation of human beings as male and female and to point forward to the completion of human existence in the life of the world to come, one is by being married and one is by being single. The fact that being single is a morally good way of life is proved supremely for Christians by the fact that Jesus, who lived a perfect human life, lived it as a single human being.

It is important to note, however, that in order to bear their proper witness to what God has done and will do these two ways of life need to remain distinct ‘the married must live in the ways of marriage, the single in the ways of singleness.’[13] The problem with same-sex sexual unions and same-sex ‘marriages’ is that they not only go against a series of specific biblical passages which reject homosexual activity (Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, Deuteronomy 23:17-18, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, 1 Timothy 1:10, Jude ), but  also involve a rejection of the truth that God has created sex as something that should take place within marriage between a man and a woman and should be in principle capable of leading to children and the truth that in the world to come human beings will exist in a state in which marriage and therefore sex will no longer exist. Same sex-sexual activity and same-sex ‘marriages’ conform to neither truth.

To put it another way, the Christian rejection of same-sex relationships is simply the inevitable negative side of the positive truth witnessed to in creation and in Scripture that God has created human beings as male and female and calls them to glorify him as male or female through living faithfully in either marriage or singleness. Living faithfully in either of these ways involves self-denial and the rejection of sexual temptation, but both of them are also capable of involving the giving and receiving of love and  resulting in happiness and fulfillment not only in this life, but in the life of the world to come.

What all this means is that the answer to James Harper’s question what ‘would make entering such relationships wrong?’ is that same-sex relationships that are sexually active and/or claim to be marriages are wrong not only because same-sex relationships carry with them a seriously elevated risk to people’s physical and mental well-being (serious though this is), but because they involve a rejection of God’s call to people to live in accordance with the goodness he has shown in creating this world and establishing the world that is to come. They are rejecting the reality of what God has done and made known to us and by so doing are rejecting God himself.

As C S Lewis once wrote, ‘There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God says in the end ‘Thy will be done.’’[14] The issue of whether or not to enter in a same-sex relationship or ‘marriage’ is simply one more form of this fundamental choice.

M B Davie 15.10.16

[1] James Harper, ‘Ian Paul and moral arguments against homosexuality’ at http://jamesharper1.blogspot.co.uk/2016/08/the-indefatigable-ian-paul-has-recently.html

[2] David Baggett and Jerry Walls, Good God – the theistic foundations of morality, New York: OUP, 2011, p.32.

[3] Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, New York: Basic Books, 1995, p.133.

[4] Andy Bannister, The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist, Oxford and Grand Rapids: Monarch, 2015, e-edition, chapter 8, quoting Arthur A Leff, ‘Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law’, Duke Law Journal, Vol.6, 1979, p.1249. Leff’s full essay can be found online at http://bit.ly/leff.

[5] Euthyphro, translated by Benjamin Jowett at http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/euthyfro.html

[6] Louise Anthony, ‘Atheist as Perfect Piety’ in Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King (eds), Is Goodness without God Good Enough, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009, p.71.

[7] Baggett and Wells, op.cit. p.123.

[8] For a comprehensive review of secular views of ethics and the problems they raise see David Baggett and Jerry Walls, God & Cosmos – Moral Truth and Human Meaning, New York:OUP, 2016.

[9] Christopher Roberts, Creation and Covenant, New York and London: T&T Clark, 2007, p.236.

[10] Ibid, p.238.

[11] S Girgis, R P George and  R T Anderson ‘What is marriage?’ in the Winter 2011 edition of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy  (Vol 34, No 1 pp.18-19),

[12] Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, Leicester: Apollos, 1994, p.70.

[13] Ibid, p.70.

[14] C S Lewis, The Great Divorce, Glasgow: Fontana, 19074, pp.66-67.

The Archbishop and the Bible – A response to Archbishop Barry Morgan’s Presidential address

  1. Introduction

The purpose of Archbishop Morgan’s Presidential address to Governing Body in the Church in Wales on 14 September 2016[1] is to justify the decision made by the church’s bishops to issue prayers that can be said with those in same-sex relationships. More specifically, it seeks to justify the claim that ‘the bishops have taken the step they have because we took seriously what the Bible has to say in trying to discern the will of God.’

The aim of this paper is to show why the archbishop’s attempt to justify the bishops’ action does not succeed.

  1. The Archbishop’s overall view of the Bible

The archbishop’s overall view of the Bible is set out towards the start of his address in the following words:

‘The Bible is not one book but a series of books and within those books, written by a variety of authors, are a number of different perspectives but also shifts in perspective about particular topics. Biblical texts are not God’s words, dictated by Him to human authors, but are the inspired response to revelation. The response is a human response however and cannot be regarded as being identical with that revelation especially since parts of the Bible are at variance with other parts.’

From the standpoint of traditional Christian theology the response that needs to be given to this statement about the nature of the Bible is both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’

We need to say ‘yes’ because it is indeed the case that the Bible is a collection of sixty six books written by a variety of different orders, that these books contain a variety of theological perspectives and that, as 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:21 tell us, they constitute an inspired response to revelation.

On the other hand, we need to say ‘no’ because the reason that the Church has identified these sixty six books as a single ‘canon,’ or authoritative rule of faith and conduct, is because of a conviction that in spite of having a variety of different authors and containing a variety of different theological perspectives these books are a unity. In spite of their diversity they are God’s ‘word,’ saying exactly what God intended them to say, and as such give us a consistent message from God telling us how what we should believe and how we should behave.

In the words of the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566:

‘We believe and confess the Canonical Scriptures of the holy prophets and apostles of both Testaments to be the true Word of God, and to have sufficient authority of themselves, not of men. For God himself spoke to the fathers, prophets, apostles, and still speaks to us through the Holy Scriptures.

And in this Holy Scripture, the universal Church of Christ has the most complete exposition of all that pertains to a saving faith, and also to the framing of a life acceptable to God; and in this respect it is expressly commanded by God that nothing either be added to or taken from the same (Deut. iv.2; Rev. xxii.18,19).’[2]

Because of this conviction that the Bible as whole is the authoritative word of God the Anglican reformers insisted that it was not legitimate for a church to ‘so expound one place of Scripture, that it may be repugnant to another’ (Article XX). As Oliver O’Donovan explains, the reason that they were insistent about this point was because:

‘Unless we can think that Scripture is readable as whole, that it communicates a unified outlook and perspective, we cannot attribute doctrinal authority to it, but only to some part of it at the cost of some other part. The authority of Scripture, then, presupposes the possibility of a harmonious reading; correspondingly, a church which presumes to offer an un-harmonious or diversifying reading may be supposed to have in mind an indirect challenge to the authority of Scripture itself.’[3]

In his statement about the nature of the Bible quoted above Archbishop Morgan does indeed challenge the authority of Scripture. This is because although he holds that the biblical writers were inspired by God he refuses to identify what they say with God’s revelation of himself as the Christian tradition has done when it has said that the Bible is God’s word.  For him the words of Scripture are simply human words which ‘cannot be regarded as being identical with that revelation especially since parts of the Bible are at variance with other parts’

Examples of alleged variance in Scripture

For Archbishop Morgan, then, the way in which some parts of the Bible are at variance with other parts of it is a primary reason why the Bible as a whole cannot be regarded as authoritative divine revelation. In his address he give four examples of such alleged variance.

  • The first is the way in which the killing of the house of Ahab by Jehu which is viewed positively in 2 Kings 9 and 10 is at variance with the condemnation of Jehu’s action in Hosea 1:4 and by Jesus’ teaching about non-retaliation and forgiveness in the Sermon on the Mount.
  • The second is the way in which the exclusion of those born of illicit or incestuous unions and both Moabites and those of Moabite descent from the worshipping community of Israel in Deuteronomy 23:1-4 is at variance with the incestuous and Moabite ancestry of both David and Jesus and with the inclusion of Gentiles into the early church.
  • The third example is the way in which the prohibition of eunuchs from being part of worshipping community of Israel in Deuteronomy 23:1 is at variance with the welcome extended to eunuchs by God in Isaiah 56:4-5 and the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40.
  • The fourth example is the way in which the biblical passages which support slavery are at variance with the message of liberation proclaimed by Jesus in Luke 4:18 and with the way in which the Bible as a whole is ‘opposed to oppression, domination and abuse.’

Archbishop Morgan draws three conclusions from these examples.

First, he says, they show:

‘…that within the Scriptures themselves, there are radical shifts in understanding in what it means to discern the will of God. It absolutely will not do to quote texts from parts of the Bible in a simplistic way without reference to their contexts. One has to treat the Bible as a whole and discern, often through stories, the direction in which it is leading.’

Secondly, they mean:

‘…one cannot argue that there is one accepted traditional way of interpreting Scripture that is true and orthodox and all else is modern revisionism, culturally conditioned. Scripture itself is diverse and theological views held in some biblical books are reshaped in the light of experience by other writers.’

Thirdly, they mean that we need to be open to the continuing guidance of the Spirit:

‘As the Jesus of St John’s Gospel says: ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.’ John 16 12-13

Or to quote Pope Francis at last year’s Synod of Bishops: ‘The temptation is to hostile inflexibility, of closing oneself within the written word (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, the God of surprises, the Spirit.’’

What are we to make of these claims about variance within Scripture?

If we look carefully at these four alleged examples of variance within Scripture none of them is convincing.

Example 1

If we turn to the first example, we find that it is true that in 2 Kings the killing of the house of Ahab at Jezreel by Jehu is described as being commended by God. In 2 Kings 9:7 the prophet Elisha tells Jehu on behalf of God: ‘And you shall strike down the house of Ahab your master, that I may avenge on Jez′ebel the blood of my servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the Lord.’  Similarly, after the killing has taken place God says to Jehu: ‘Because you have done well in carrying out what is right in my eyes, and have done to the house of Ahab according to all that was in my heart, your sons of the fourth generation shall sit on the throne of Israel.’

This commendation appear at first sight to be contradicted by what is said in Hosea 1:4. In this verse, according to the translation in the RSV, God tells the prophet to call his son Jezreel: ‘for yet a little while, and I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel.’  According to Archbishop Morgan this means that Hosea believed ‘Jehu behaved atrociously and should have been punished by God’ and shows that Hosea had ‘opened his heart to a new understanding of God as a being who would not sanction mass murder.’

However, even if one translates Hosea 1:4 in the way that the RSV does, Archbishop Morgan’s interpretation of its meaning does not follow. (a) It does not say that God should have punished Jehu and (b) it does not say that God would never permit mass killing given that it is predicting that God will put an end to the kingdom of Israel by means of military action by the Assyrians.

Furthermore, the RSV translation of Hosea 1:4 is arguably misleading. A better translation is that offered by Douglas Stuart in his Word commentary on Hosea: ‘Yahweh said to him: ‘Name him ‘Jezreel,’’ because it will not be long before I apply the bloodshed of Jezreel to the family of Jehu, and then destroy the kingdom of the family of Israel.’ [4]  On this translation of the verse ‘Jezreel’ is a symbol of God’s judgment and what the verse means is, to quote Stuart again, ‘In the same way that Jehu in 842 had annihilated a dynasty famed for its long history of oppression and apostasy, so Yahweh himself will now put an end to the Jehu dynasty because it, in turn, has grown hopelessly corrupt.’[5] This reading of Hosea 1:4 makes sense in terms of the message of Hosea as a whole, which is concerned with the current day unfaithfulness and immorality of Israel and its ruling house and the judgment that this will bring about rather than with delayed punishment for what happened in 842.

Seeing Jesus’ words about non-retaliation and forgiveness in the Sermon on the Mount as showing that he saw God in a ‘totally different way’ from 2 Kings 9 and 10 is also unsustainable. This is because the gospels make clear that like the author of 2 Kings 9 and 10 Jesus believed in a terrible and comprehensive judgment of God upon human sin, which he taught would take two forms, a final judgment at the end of time and a more immediate temporal judgment on Israel involving the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the armies of Rome (see for example Matthew 23:37-25:46). Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount needs, therefore, to be seen along the lines of St. Paul’s teaching in Romans 12:19: ‘Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’’ and seen in this way it is entirely compatible with the theology of 2 Kings 9 and 10.

Example 2

If we look at the second example we find that there are a number of problems with what Archbishop Morgan says.

First it is not entirely clear that the Hebrew word mamzer used in Deuteronomy 23:2 refers to the offspring of incestuous unions as Archbishop Morgan’s argument requires. The word only occurs twice in the Old Testament (the other use being Zechariah 9:6) and its meaning is disputed. An alternative suggestion is that it refers to ‘children born to cult prostitutes.’[6]  If this interpretation is correct it has absolutely nothing to do with the ancestry of either David or Jesus since none of their ancestors were cult prostitutes.

Secondly, even if the view that it does refer to the offspring of incestuous unions is the correct one this does not exclude those descended from either Lot’s daughters or from Tamar.

According to Deuteronomy the exclusion of the Ammonites and Moabites from the ‘assembly of the Lord’ has nothing to do with their descent from the incestuous union between Lot and his daughters (Genesis 19:30-38) as the Archbishop suggests. Deuteronomy 23:4 makes it clear that the reason for their exclusion was their attitude to the people of Israel at the time of the Exodus: ‘because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came forth out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Be′or from Pethor of Mesopota′mia, to curse you.’  The fact that both David and Jesus were descended from the incest of Lot and his daughters through their Moabite ancestry would therefore not in itself be a bar to their being members of the Israelite worshipping community. This argument is a red herring.

Similarly, according to Deuteronomy the incest between Judah and Tamar recorded in Genesis 38 did not bar the members of the tribe of Judah from being full members of the people of Israel. We know this because in Deuteronomy 27:12 and 33:7 the members of the tribe of Judah are specifically mentioned as members of the people of Israel. The fact that both David and Jesus were of the tribe of Judah therefore does not mean that they come under the scope of Deuteronomy 23:2. This argument too is a red herring.

The reason why in neither case is incestuous ancestry an issue is because the legislation in Deuteronomy 23 is prospective rather than retrospective. Those who are the descendants of incestuous unions entered into prior to the formation of the people of Israel and its settlement in the land of promise do not come under the scope of this legislation. God makes the people of Israel his people in spite of the sexual impurity of their ancestors, but he requires sexual purity in Israel thereafter. In the same way, in the New Testament those have engaged in sexual impurity are welcomed into the people of God, but they are expected to live according to God’s standards from then onwards (see 1 Corinthians 6:9-20).

Thirdly, the fact that both David and Jesus were descendants of Ruth who was a Moabite (Ruth 1:4) does not contradict Deuteronomy 23:3 because the ancestry of both was reckoned along the paternal line and therefore they were therefore full members of the Israelite worshipping community because they were the descendants of Obed (Ruth 4:18-22, Matthew 1:5-16).

Fourthly, it is not the case that when in Acts St. Peter associates with Cornelius and his household and baptises them (Acts 10) this means, as Archbishop Morgan says, that ‘the Holiness Code of Leviticus is set aside in favour of a belief in a God who accepts impure people.’  The point is rather that through the work of Jesus God has now made the Gentiles pure. That is why St. Peter is told in in Acts 10:15 ‘What God has cleansed, you must not call common.’

Example 3

Moving on to the third example we find that it is the case that Deuteronomy 23:1 excludes eunuchs when it declares that ‘He whose testicles are crushed or whose male member is cut off shall not enter the assembly of the Lord.’

It is also the case the Isaiah 56:4-5 eunuchs are welcomed by God. As Archbishop Morgan notes, in these verses God says ‘Eunuchs who keep my Sabbath and choose the things that please me and hold fast my Covenant, I will welcome to my house and give them within my walls a monument and a name better than my own sons and daughters.’

Finally it is the case that in Acts 8 the Ethiopian eunuch is included into God’s people through baptism.

However, neither of the two later examples contradict what is said in Deuteronomy. This is because while Deuteronomy gives instructions relating to the constitution of the people of Israel under the Mosaic covenant, in Isaiah 56 the prophet looks forward to ‘an eschatological time of salvation when the eunuchs will be accepted into the congregation of the Lord and will be given special honor and recognition within God’s house.’ [7]

The witness of the New Testament is that this eschatological time of salvation in which both foreigners and eunuchs will be included rather than excluded from God’s people has arrived through the ministry of Jesus and that is why the Ethiopian in Acts 8, who is both a foreigner and a eunuch, can nevertheless become part of God’s people.

Example 4

In relation to what the Bible says about slavery, which is Archbishop Morgan’s fourth and final example, the point to note is not that there is ‘overwhelming biblical support for slavery’ which is at variance with Jesus’ proclamation of liberation for the oppressed and the general biblical opposition to oppression, domination and abuse.

The point is instead that there is a consistent trajectory of thought throughout the Bible that critiques slavery even while accepting the reality of its existence. To quote Robert Gagnon:

‘One can discern a trajectory within the Bible that critiques slavery. Front and center in Israelite memory was its remembrance of God’s liberation from slavery in Egypt (e.g., Exod 22:21; 23:9; Lev 25:42, 55; Deut 15:15). Christian memory adds the paradigmatic event of Christ’s redemption of believers from slavery to sin and people (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23; and often). Consequently, Israelite law put various restrictions on enslaving fellow Israelites—mandatory release dates, the right of near-kin redemption, not returning runaway slaves, and insisting that Israelites not be treated as slaves—while Paul in 1 Cor 7:21-23 and Phlm 16 regarded liberation from slavery as at least a penultimate good.’[8]

When the Church Fathers, the theologians of the Middle Ages, and the abolitionists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries opposed slavery as such and sought its abolition what they were doing was developing and applying the logic of this trajectory.

The point just made also highlights the fact that Archbishop Morgan is also mistaken when he says that for nineteen centuries the Church ‘accepted and defended’ slavery. The truth is rather that Christian influence led to the development of an almost universal belief that enslaving people was wrong and an almost total abolition of slavery within Christendom by the end of the Middle Ages. Slavery then re-emerged in the form of the enslavement of Indians and Africans from the fifteenth century onwards (in spite of vigorous opposition from the Papacy) and it was this re-emergent slavery that was challenged by the Protestant abolitionists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

An examination of the four examples cited by the archbishop thus fails to support his claim that: ‘within the Scriptures themselves, there are radical shifts in understanding in what it means to discern the will of God’ or his claim that ‘Scripture itself is diverse and theological views held in some biblical books are reshaped in the light of experience by other writers.’ The examples that he has chosen simply do not prove either claim.

Archbishop Morgan is correct when he says that we have to ‘treat the Bible as a whole and discern often through stories the direction in which it is leading.’ Because the Bible as a whole is God’s word and gives part of its teaching in stories then we do have to do as the archbishop says. However, what the archbishop does is precisely not read the Bible as a whole. Rather his approach is to read it as a collection of contradictory parts between which we have to pick and choose.

Furthermore, even if it was the case that the Bible is internally diverse in the way he suggests this would not contradict the claim that ‘that there is one accepted traditional way of interpreting Scripture that is true and orthodox and all else is modern revisionism, culturally conditioned.’  There could theoretically be one traditional, true and orthodox way of handling the diversity in Scripture besides which all other interpretations are simply examples of culturally conditioned revisionism. Even granted his premises his argument thus fails to stand up.

Finally, the archbishop is correct to suggest that we should be open to the guidance of the Spirit. This is something that Christian theology has always taught. However, being guided by the Spirit cannot mean being led to affirm things that are contrary to what Scripture teaches. This is because this would mean that God was contradicting himself which would be inconsistent with his nature as a God who is totally truthful and consistent in all that he says and does (see for example Numbers 23:19, Malachi 3:6, James 1:17-18).

Archbishop Morgan on the Bible and same-sex relationships

Archbishop Morgan concludes his paper by applying his argument to the issue of same-sex relationships.

He begins by saying that ‘taking the Bible as a whole and taking what it says very seriously may lead us into a very different view of same-sex relationships than the one traditionally upheld by the Church.’

He then gives four arguments in support of this statement

First, he says that the biblical passages that refer to same-sex relationships ‘are not about committed, loving, faithful monogamous relationships with persons of the same sex but about something totally different.’

He gives two examples to illustrate this point

  1. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 is not, he argues, about homosexuality, but about ‘an abuse of hospitality and what one writer calls ‘an attempted gang rape by a mob against two outsiders who are Lot’s guests.’ Indeed Ezekiel says Lot’s relatives were punished primarily because they refused to help the poor and needy.’
  2. The passages in the New Testament that are ‘often cited’ are ‘not about loving, committed, faithful relationships between people of the same sex, but about pederasty and male prostitution.’

Secondly, affirming same-sex relationships does not means ‘abandoning the Bible,’ but rather ‘trying to interpret it in a way that is consistent with the main thrust of the ministry of Jesus, who went out of His way to minister to those who were excluded, marginalised, and abandoned by His society because they were regarded as impure and unholy by the religious leaders of His day, either because of their gender, age, morality or sexuality.’

Thirdly, we need to take into account what we ‘what we now know about same-sex attraction in terms of psychology and biology and the experience of homosexual people.’  As he sees it, what we learn from these sources is that ‘sexual orientation is not a matter of personal choice but of how people are’

Finally, he quotes Andrew Davison’s statement:

‘We are most truly ourselves when we live for others and we gain life not by clutching to it but by giving it away. Living for others underlines the truest meaning of sexuality. Christians have discovered that most people flourish best when this living for others finds its focus in a commitment to one other person: when a couple make a lifelong commitment within which sex properly belongs.’

Why, he asks ‘would we want to deny such a possibility to those attracted to their own gender? ’

None of these arguments is convincing

Why the archbishop is wrong about the Bible and same-sex relationships.

In response to the first argument, the first point to note is that his account of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 conflates three separate revisionist interpretations of the story, all of which are problematic.

  • The idea that that the story is simply about the ‘abuse of hospitality’ ignores the sexual element in the story in which the word ‘know’ (Genesis 19:5 and 8) means ‘have sex with.’
  • The idea that the story is about the attempted ‘gang rape’ of Lot’s guests ignores the fact that the Hebrew terms for rape are not used in Genesis 19. All that the text tells us is that the men of Sodom wanted to have sexual relations with Lot’s visitors. In the story that fact alone is sufficient to establish that Sodom was a gravely sinful placing deserving divine punishment.
  • The idea that Ezekiel 16:49-50 sees the sin of Sodom as being a failure to care for the poor and needy ignores the fact that the term ‘committed an abomination’ used in verse 50 refers to engaging in same sex activity as it does in Leviticus 20:13 where the identical phrase is used.

In addition there is no linguistic evidence to support the contention that Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:10 refer to pederasty and male prostitution. The terms used are general terms for same-sex sexual activity that cannot be restricted to pederasty or prostitution.

The overall claim that the biblical references to homosexuality do not cover ‘committed, loving, faithful, monogamous relationships’ ignores that fact that (a) such relationships were known in the ancient world (and therefore would have been known to the biblical writers) and (b) that the Bible prohibits all forms of same-sex sexual relationship because they go against God’s creation of human beings as male and female (Genesis 1:26-27, Genesis 2:18-23) and his creation of heterosexual marriage as the context for sexual activity (Genesis 2:24).

In response to the second argument, it is true that Jesus did welcome those who were marginalised and excluded such as the ‘tax collectors and sinners’ mentioned in Matthew 9:9-13 and Luke 5:27-32. However, we also know:

  • that Jesus founded his sexual ethic on the fact that God created human beings as male and female and joined them together in marriage as recorded in Genesis 1 and 2 (Matthew 19:1-9, Mark 10:2-12);
  • that Jesus did not reject the teaching of the Mosaic law on sexual ethics, but rather intensified it by including desire as well as action and by taking a stricter line on divorce (Matthew 5:27-32);
  • that the Gospels tell us that Jesus included porneia (a catch all term that included not only adultery, but also incest, homosexuality and bestiality) as one of those things that renders an individual unclean in the sight of God (Matthew 5:19, Mark 7:21). By using this term Matthew and Mark are testifying that Jesus regarded homosexuality as something that made people unclean before God.

These three known facts together do not leave any space for the idea that Jesus approved homosexuality.

In response to the third argument, all that we actually know from psychology, biology and people’s experience is that a small minority of the population experience exclusively same-sex attraction either throughout their life or for some part of it. Knowing this:

  • does not tell us anything about the moral status of such desire, or of same-sexual activity;
  • does not mean that people are not free to choose whether or not to engage in same-sex sexual activity;
  • does not contradict the teaching of the Bible that people ought to not to choose to engage in same-sex sexual activity.

What we know from sources other than the Bible about the nature of same-sex attraction therefore does not mean that we need to either re-interpret or ignore what the Bible says about the matter.

It is also important to note that there are two issues to do with extra-biblical sources of information that the archbishop chooses to ignore.

First of all, he ignores what natural theology can teach us about the relationship between sex and marriage.

If we consider the human race we find that it is a made up of two sexes, male and female, and is biologically designed to reproduce through sexual intercourse. Human beings are so made by their Creator that sexual intercourse, sexual pleasure, and sexual reproduction are meant to go together. To use technical language, sexual relationships are meant to be both ‘unitive’ (bringing a man and woman together) and ‘generative’ (open to the possibility of procreation).  From this perspective sex and marriage belong together because a marriage is a sexual union between two people of the opposite sex that is both unitive and potentially generative and its monogamous and life-long character is best suited for ensuring that the couple involved care for each other and for any children that are a result of their union

Viewed from this perspective the study of the created order supports rather than contradicts biblical teaching.

Secondly, he ignores the large amount of evidence that says that involvement in same-sex sexual activity is harmful both to people’s physical and mental well-being. In the words of Thomas Schmidt:

‘Those who wish to promote a revisionist view of homosexual behaviour would rather that we do not imagine anything beyond, in L William Countryman’s words, ‘an entire class of human beings [who have the] right peaceably and without harming others to pursue the kind of sexuality that corresponds to their nature.’ But no honest look at current scientific research allows us to view homosexual practice as peaceable and harmless. For the vast majority of homosexual men, and for a significant number of homosexual women – even apart from the deadly plague of AIDS- sexual behavior is obsessive, psychopathological and destructive to the body. If there were no specific biblical principles to guide sexual behaviour, these considerations alone would constitute a compelling argument against homosexual practice.’[9]

Archbishop Morgan’s final quotation from Andrew Davison is problematic because it fails to recognise that what Christians have actually discovered throughout the history of the Church is that all people flourish best when they live in obedience to God’s will as revealed in Scripture, even when this means saying no to their fallen sexual desires. This being the case, the question that revisionists such as Archbishop Morgan have to answer is why do they not want those with same-sex attraction to flourish in this way?


What this paper has shown is that Archbishop Morgan’s address fails to demonstrate either that the Bible as a whole is at variance with itself and therefore cannot be seen in its entirety as God’s revelation, or that it is legitimate to set aside the Church’s traditional understanding of what the Bible has to say about same-sex relationships. It thus fails to justify the Welsh bishops’ decision to approve prayers to mark same-sex relationships.

M B Davie 8.9.16

[1] Presidential Address- Governing Body September 2016, full text at http://www.churchinwales.org.uk/structure/bishops/sermons-and-addresses-archbishop-barry-morgan/presidential-address-governing-body-september-2016/

[2] The Second Helvetic Confession, 1566, Chapter 1 ‘Of the Holy Scripture Being The True Word of God,’ text in J H Leith (ed), Creeds of the Churches, revd. ed., Oxford: Blackwell, 1973, p.132.

[3] Oliver O’Donovan, On the Thirty Nine Articles, Exeter: Paternoster, 1986, p.57.

[4] Quoted in ‘Good Question …did God like what Jehu did or not?’  at http://christianthinktank.com/qjehu.html

[5] Ibid.

[6] P C Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987, p. 297.

[7] Richard M Davidson, Flame of Yahweh – Sexuality in the Old Testament, Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007, p.335.

[8] Robert Gagnon, ‘Slavery, Homosexuality, and the Bible: A Response[‘ at http://www.robgagnon.net/articles/homoKrehbielResponse.pdf

For a detailed account of the biblical trajectory in relation to slavery see William Web, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001.

[9] Thomas Schmidt, Straight and Narrow?, Downers Grove: IVP, 1995, p.131 and ch.6 as a whole. As an example of what Schmidt is talking about, the Journal of the American Medical Association has reported that the recent National Health Interview Survey in the US shows that ‘[Homosexuals] were more likely to report impaired physical and mental health, heavy alcohol consumption, and heavy cigarette use.’ See ‘Study: Higher health risks for homosexuals’ (http://www.gopusa.com/?p=12006?omhide=true)  see also See also Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, Nashville: Abingdon, 2001, pp.471-485 and Bill Muehlenberg, Strained Relations, the Challlenge of Homosexuality, Melbourne: Culture Watch Books 2014, ch. 2.