A critical examination of the Bishop of Worcester’s arguments for the Church blessing same-sex marriages

In his open letter to the Diocese of Worcester published on 9 January, Bishop John Inge sets out nine arguments that he thinks mean that the Church of England should recognise and bless same-sex marriages.

In this article I shall look at each of these arguments in turn and explain why they fail to make a persuasive case for the Church of England changing its current position with regard to marriage. In each case I shall quote the Bishop’s words and then give my response.

Argument 1 – Sexual orientation is not a choice

‘Until recently it was thought by many that the expression of homosexuality was simply a perverse lifestyle choice. Though, as yet, there is no scientific certainty about what factors determine sexual orientation, there is general consensus that it is not a choice.  There is even stronger consensus that ‘sexual orientation change efforts’ (SOCE), sometimes called ‘conversion therapies’ for homosexual orientation are both ineffective and harmful.’

Response

This part of the bishop’s argument ignores the fact that it is increasingly acknowledged even by gay rights campaigners such as Peter Tatchell that people’s sexual attraction can often be fluid, changing over the course of their life for a variety of reasons. Therefore, it is simply not always the case that those who currently identify themselves as gay or lesbian have a fixed same-sex sexual orientation. The reality is actually more complicated than that.  Furthermore, those who do experience same-sex sexual attraction, either temporarily or throughout their lives, still have a choice of whether or not to act on it. As with heterosexual sexual attraction, desire is not destiny. People have the ability to choose what to do.

In addition, the available evidence does not support the consensus that SOCE are always ineffective and harmful. What the evidence actually tells us is that there is no convincing evidence that they are always harmful and that in fact such efforts are found beneficial by a good number of people.

Argument 2 – What the Bible condemns is exploitative same-sex relationships

‘I do not think that the oft quoted passages in Leviticus and Paul refer to anything comparable to the faithful, monogamous same-sex relationships which some of us are suggesting the Church should celebrate … It must be admitted that wherever instances of same-sex sexual activity are found in the Bible they are unequivocally condemned but what I believe the Bible condemns is something that every gay person in the Church today would also condemn – abusive, oppressive, exploitative relationships.  The Bible never explains why same-sex sexual activity is condemned: it may well be the exploitative nature of the activity described.’

Response

The problem with this argument is that there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that only exploitative same-sex relationships are unacceptable. There is no evidence to suggest that all same-sex relationships in the ancient world were abusive, oppressive, or exploitative in character, and equally there is nothing in the language used in the relevant biblical passages that indicates that it is only same-sex relationships of this character that are unacceptable to God.

Furthermore, the Bible does actually make clear why same-sexual relationships are unacceptable to God. In Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 the context makes it clear that the reason why same-sex sexual activity between men (and by extension between women as well) is an ‘abomination’ is because such  activity is contrary to God’s creation of human beings as male and female and his establishment of monogamous heterosexual, non-incestuous, marriage as the context for sexual activity and the procreation of children. Similarly in Romans 1:26-27 both gay and lesbian same-sex sexual activity is seen as sinful because it is activity that is ‘unnatural’ in the sense of being contrary to God’s creation of human beings as male and female creatures biologically designed for sexual activity and procreation with members of the opposite sex.  

This being the case, even ‘faithful, monogamous same-sex relationships’ have to be seen as unacceptable before God  – even if they are relatively less sinful than abusive, oppressive or exploitative same-sex relationships. A good comparison is adultery. Abusive, oppressive and exploitative adulterous relationships  are comparatively more sinful than loving adulterous relationships, but the latter are nonetheless still sinful. So it is with same-sex relationships.

Argument 3 – What the biblical material is concerned with is active and passive sexual roles

‘Equally, Paul is not talking about what we would term sexual orientation, a very modern concept. Arsenokoites and malakos describe roles being adopted in same-sex sexual acts. To be a man in the ancient world was to be assertive and dominant; to be a woman was to be passive and receptive. Men who were malakos in the relationship were a scandal, ‘effeminate’ and mocked. When Leviticus 18 specifically condemns lying with a man ‘as with a woman’ there seems to be a similar concern with roles. God willing, we don’t nowadays understand love-making and sexual intimacy in terms of active and passive roles, with men as active and dominant and women as passive. Surely a Christian understanding of love and relating is about mutuality and partnership? I would suggest that gospel teaching about love redefines ancient assumptions about hierarchy and role, both socially and theologically.’

Response

Paul would have been aware of the idea that that there were some people who were innately attracted to the members of their own sex since this idea was well known in the first century, but for him it would have been theologically irrelevant. This is because for him what mattered was not the sexual desires that some people experience as a consequence of humanity’s corporate alienation  from God, but the way God created human beings to behave as witnessed to by their bodies.

Furthermore, there is nothing in the Bible to support the idea that same-sex sexual activity is sinful because it involves men taking passive sexual roles and women taking active ones. The concept that there are proper roles within sexual activity is not something that is found in Scripture. In Leviticus 18:22 lying with ‘a man as with a woman’ is simply a Hebrew euphemism for same-sex sexual intercourse and in 1 Corinthians 6:9 Paul makes clear that both the active (arsenokoites) and passive (malakos) roles in same-sex intercourse are equally sinful.

Argument 4 – Jesus was silent about homosexuality

‘Jesus made no mention of homosexuality, though the fact that he refers to a man leaving his father and mother and cleaving to his wife in the same passage as he prohibits divorce (Mark 10. 7-10), with a reference back to Genesis, leads some to suggest that the marriage of one man to one woman is a creation ordinance.’

Response

It is not simply ‘some’ who suggest that the words of Jesus point to the marriage of one man and one woman being a creation ordinance. It is generally accepted that this is what Jesus was saying. His argument on divorce in Mark 10:7-10 and in the parallel passage in Matthew 19:3-9 depends on monogamous heterosexual marriage being a creation ordinance. ‘What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder’ (Matthew 19:6).

Furthermore, it is simply not true that Jesus made no mention of homosexuality. The Gospels tell us that Jesus taught that porneia rendered human beings unclean in the sight of God (Matthew 5:19 and Mark 7:21) and porneia was a catch all term for all the sexual offences condemned in Leviticus 18, homosexuality included. In addition, if Jesus had taught that same-sexual relationships were acceptable before God this would have been a radical breach with accepted Jewish thought that would have left a trace in the Gospel record. The fact there is no such trace indicates that Jesus did no such thing.

Argument 5- There is no single biblical view of marriage

‘The trouble is that there is no such thing as a fixed ‘biblical’ view of marriage. We know that the Bible countenances men having quite a few wives – Solomon, we are told, had 700 –  so the witness is mixed, to say the least. The number of marriages in the Bible which can be held up as examples of what we would understand to be a ‘good’ marriage is surprisingly few.’

Response

The problen here is that the bishop has failed to distinguish between what the Bible reports and what the Bible approves.

What a study of the Bible actually shows is that the pattern for marriage established by God in Genesis 2:18-25 and subsequently reiterated by Jesus is the normative biblical pattern for what marriage should be. All other forms of marital or quasi marital relationships that occur in the biblical record are declared either implicitly or explicitly to be devitations from this pattern resulting from human fallenness.

In the specific case of Solomon’s wives, the point of the account in Kings 11:1-13 is that he has broken the commanment of God in Deutronomy 17:17 that the king of Israel should not ‘multiply wives for himself’ and the end result of his disobedience is the subsequent division of the Kingdom of Israel.

Argument 6  – Gender is not that important

‘It is also suggested that Genesis 2.24-26 concerning a man leaving his father and mother and being united to his wife is a ‘creation ordinance’. That is to say, it is one of the principles that God gave to humanity at the beginning of creation before the fall.  I have come to think that we tend to overplay the significance of gender in God’s scheme of things. In Genesis we read ‘male and female he created them, in the image of God he created them.’ It is not gender which is essential in reflecting the image of God, though.’

Response

In the literary structure of Genesis, Genesis 1 and 2 are intended to complement each other. In Genesis 1 we are told that human beings are created to be God’s image bearers as male and female human beings who are to ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ and in Genesis 2 it is underlined that for human beings to perform the role assigned to them by God both sexes are required (Adam cannot do the job without Eve as his helper). Genesis 2 also makes it clear that just as God created human beings in his image as male and female, so also he created marriage as a sexual union between a man and a woman. As Jesus indicates in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, the one follows from the other.

Argument 7 – Sexual identity is not something that will exist in eternity

‘Equally, neither sex nor gender have eternal significance. Jesus tells his hearers that ‘at the resurrection they will neither marry nor be given in marriage, they will be like the angels in heaven.’ (Matt 22.30) This correlates with what Paul writes to the Galatians, that ‘in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free, no male nor female’. (Gal 3.28).’

Response

Even if sexual distinction did cease to exist in the world to come this would not in itself mean that same-sex relationships were acceptable in this world. However, as has been recognised since Patristic times, while Jesus makes it clear that there will be no sex or procreation in the world to come  and that in that sense humans will be ‘like the angels,’ his argument actually depends on the fact that humans will continue to be male or female in eternity. If it were otherwise the issue of marriage in the world to come simply would not arise.

Furthermore, the very concept of resurrection involves the resurrection of the body, and this means the continuing existence of sexual distinction since the bodies that will be raised are male or female bodies (as Jesus was raised with the male body that was laid in the tomb on Good Friday).

In addition, Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28 do not mean that the distinction between male and female has ceased to exist in this world, or will cease to exist in the world come. What Paul is saying is that there is no distinction between male and female in terms of their ability to receive the blessing from God promised to Abraham as a result of their common relationship with Christ  (‘if you are Christs, you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise’ – Galatians 3:29).  

Argument 8 – the traditional ‘goods’ of marriage can be enjoyed in a same-sex marriage

‘I have come to see that all the traditional ‘goods of marriage’ except procreation can be enjoyed by those in a same-sex marriage. The latter, in any event, is bracketed out in the Common Worship rite and, as we all know, not all heterosexual marriages produce children. The other two ‘goods of marriage’ which, after Augustine, are mutual love and support and sexual intimacy, are available in a gay relationship. If the Church were to accept equal marriage it could hold to its teaching that sexual activity properly belongs within marriage and it could give all the support it gives to heterosexual couples to homosexual ones. ‘

Response

The problem with this argument is by God’s ordinance a marriage is relationship between a man and a woman. This means that the goods of marriage cannot be enjoyed in a relationship between two people of the same sex since their relationship is simply not a marriage. A comparison with adultery is again helpful here. It is perfectly possible for an adulterous relationship to provide those involved with mutual love and support and to result in the procreation of children. However, we cannot rightly say that those in an adulterous relationship are enjoying the goods of marriage because their relationship is not a marriage. So also, with a same-sex relationship. It may provide mutual love and support and sexual intimacy, but it is still not a marriage and therefore cannot be blessed by the Church as if it was.   

Circles and squares are both one dimensional shapes, but a square is not a circle. Lions and tigers are both big cats, but a tiger is not a lion. It is the differences that make all the difference.

Argument 9- Gay Christians today are seeking the blessing of monogamous, committed, loving faithful relationships.

‘We need to recognise that gay Christians today, seeking to live consecrated, faithful lives in the way of Christ, simply do not find themselves described in these [Pauline] texts. They do not advocate or practise those exploitative sins of which Paul speaks. Indeed, the suggestion is deeply offensive. This must be taken with full seriousness. What they want is something different, very different: for the Church to bless their monogamous, committed, loving, faithful relationships.’

Response

As we have seen, Paul does not reject same-sex relationships because they are exploitative in nature. He rejects them because God created his human creatures to have sexual relationships in the context of marriage with those of the opposite sex. To depart from this pattern created by God is necessarily sinful because it involves saying to God ‘my will be done’ rather than ‘thy will be done’ and, unless repented of, is behaviour that will bar someone from the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:11) in the same way that any other form of porneia will do.  

However  monogamous, committed, loving and faithful same-sex relationships may be, this truth still applies and a Church that really care for people’s well being in this world and in the world to come.  will not pretend otherwise. The Church of England cannot second guess God by blessing what he does not bless and calling holy behaviour that he describes in his word as unholy.  

Conclusion

The Bishops of Worcester’s arguments do not provide a cogent reason for the Church of England to change its position on marriage. The Church of England is called to echo Paul’s message to the Corinthians ‘flee sexual immorality’ (1 Corinthians 6:18) and it cannot do this if at the same time it agrees to bless same-sex relationships as if they were marriages.

The Church of England cannot both call on people to choose to live in accordance with God’s will while also blessing in God’s name a pattern of life that is contrary to it.

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3 thoughts on “A critical examination of the Bishop of Worcester’s arguments for the Church blessing same-sex marriages

  1. 66

    Argument 1 – Sexual orientation is not a choice

    ‘Until recently it was thought by many that the expression of homosexuality was simply a perverse lifestyle choice. Though, as yet, there is no scientific certainty about what factors determine sexual orientation, there is general consensus that it is not a choice.

    99

    Reading these words made me angry, because a bishop of the C of E was expressing a modern, made-up, and deterministic doctrine, an ethical and metaphysical doctrine which I call the doctrine of “sexual orientation”. It is a doctrine that I do not believe. It contradicts ancient Christian doctrines I do believe, including doctrines taught by at least one apostle and the Lord Jesus Christ himself. My testimony is more than half a century ago, I exited sorrow, confusion and bondage and entered into joy, clarity and freedom, when I took the decision to stop believing that modern, made-up doctrine, which this heretical bishop is still preaching.

    This bishop’s doctrine, assuming you have represented his beliefs fairly, negates so many fundamental Christian doctrines that I find it difficult to think of the bishop as a fellow Christian who just happens to have an honest disagreement with the torah, the prophets, the psalmists and the writer of the wisdom books, our Lord Jesus Christ himself, the apostles and other epistle-writers, the evangelists, the church fathers, and the church councils of the early cemturies. I am puzzled why anybody who was seeking peace with the pardoning God of the bible who was mighty to save, who, as Wesley put, “breaks the power of cancelled sin”, would be remotely interested in this fellow’s useless, made-up, false god had to offer.

    66

    There is even stronger consensus that ‘sexual orientation change efforts’ (SOCE), sometimes called ‘conversion therapies’ for homosexual orientation are both ineffective and harmful.’

    99

    I think it is a serious mistake to call anything that a Christian should encourage “sexual orientation change efforts”. Rather, I recommend rejecting the doctrine of sexual orientation that the bishop preaches, and blaspheming the weak, incapable, powerless and fictitious god-in-name-only he seems to put his faith in – though faith to do what it is hard to imagine. But nobody who (like the bishop) believes that there is such a thing as sexual orientation (as understood by the bishop and others of his LGBT faith community), also believes that this hypothetical organ of the human soul can be “converted” by “therapy”. The narrative that there are conversion therapists who are offering in the UK in the present day quack therapies that they claim can “convert” a patient’s “sexual orientation” is, I am convinced a hoax. Even if I am wrong, those who unwisely refer to “sexual orientation change efforts” (if there be any), most definitely don’t call these efforts “conversion therapies” “sometimes” as you say the bishop asserts.

  2. Very helpful article.
    Question: In Argument 7 response: ‘This means that the goods of marriage cannot be enjoyed in a relationship between two people of the opposite sex since their relationship simply is not a marriage’
    ‘opposite’ should be ‘same’?

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