Why Grace does not destroy nature – a response to Martyn Percy on the Bible and the nuclear family

Professor Percy’s five fold argument.

In the latest instalment of the ViaMedia.News series ‘Does the Bible Really Say…’ series, Professor Martyn Percy addresses the topic ‘Does the Bible Really…Advocate the ‘Nuclear Family?’ [1]

In his article Professor Percy gives five reasons for rejecting the idea that Christianity is ‘right behind the nuclear family.’

First, he appeals to the teaching of Jesus, declaring:

‘Jesus advocated leaving one’s parents for the sake of the Kingdom. The siblings too, got some short shrift from Jesus. He told his disciples to go do likewise, more or less.  Moreover, don’t even think about loitering at your parents’ funerals; there is kingdom work to be done. The dead can bury the dead.’

Secondly, he argues that the Bible ‘contains many patterns of family life’ and that the Old Testament in particular ‘offers us dozens – literally – of ‘family patterns’, which ‘should not necessarily be honoured today.’  As an example, he refers to the story of Rachel and Leah in Genesis 29-30, both of whom are married to Jacob, and both of whom offer him their maids so that he can beget children by them.

Thirdly, he argues that the founders  of four of the world’s great religions, Moses, the Buddha, Mohammed and Jesus were all adopted:

‘Moses was abandoned by his birth mother and left to float in a small coracle in the River Nile, and had the good fortune to be picked up by the daughter of one of the Pharaohs, and nurtured as one of her own.  Mohammed was orphaned at the age of six, or perhaps earlier, and was brought up by his uncle in the ancient city of Makka.  The Buddha’s mother died when he was less than a week old, and he was raised by her sister.  Jesus, of course, according to Christian orthodoxy is not exactly the child of Joseph, since Christian tradition claims no human intervention in his genesis.  Although Mary is clearly his mother, Joseph is not his biological father.’

According to Professor Percy this matters because it places the dynamic of adoption at the heart of these religious traditions.

Fourthly, the early Church based itself not on the pattern of the nuclear family, but on the pattern of an oikos, an ‘extended household incorporating kith and kin, servants, slaves, tutors, workers, dependents and contributors.’

Fifthly, as an oikos the Church was an outward facing body that ‘took to adoption quite naturally’ and adoption is something that is central to the Church’s life:

‘… just as churches, congregations and individuals Christians understand or experience themselves as, in some sense, ‘adopted’ by God (as Paul suggests), so they in turn, find themselves adopting others.’

It is for this reason, Professor Percy contends, that:

‘… the churches, at their best, function like adoption and foster homes.  They welcome the unwelcome; they love the unloved; they embrace the excluded.  The Church was not meant to be a cult or a club for members, any more than the Christian vision for ‘family’ was ever meant to be ‘nuclear’. It wasn’t.

The early church took in widows and orphans. The early church was extensive and open in character.  It embraced slave and free, Jew and Gentile.  It will have embraced married and unmarried, and young and old, citizen and alien.  If the Church wants to recover a vision for mission and evangelism, and plead for the restoration of moral foundations in contemporary society, then appealing to the sanctity of the ‘nuclear family’ is not the way forward.’

How should we respond to this argument?

The first thing to note is that Professor Percy seems to be operating with a very misleading understanding of what is meant by a ‘nuclear family.’

Implicit in his overall approach to the significance of the nuclear family is a contrast between a nuclear family and a body that is open to adopting the outsider. His central argument seems to be that the Church should be the latter rather than the former.

However, the generally accepted definition of a nuclear family is ‘the basic family unit consisting of the mother and father with their children.’ [2] What is important to note is that these children are not necessarily the biological children of the parents concerned. From time immemorial children have become permanent members of nuclear families through adoption with the mother and father becoming their mother and father and the other children in the family becoming their brothers and sisters. Furthermore, nuclear families have often had other people living with them as ‘part of the family’ for greater or lesser periods of time, whether other family members, foster children, or just people in need of a home.

Professor Percy’s suggestion that nuclear families are inherently closed entities which exclude outsiders is thus simply untrue.

Secondly, he is also misleading in his account of the teaching of Jesus. Although he does not give specific references, he seems to be referring to two passages from St. Luke’s gospel.

The first of these references is Luke 14:26:

‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.’

At first sight this appears to be a clear repudiation by Jesus of all family ties. However, this would contradict Jesus’ own criticism in Mark 7:9-13 of those who reject their family responsibilities, and, as George Caird notes in his commentary on Luke, this is not actually what Jesus’ words mean:

‘To hate father and mother did not mean on the lips of Jesus what it conveys to the Western reader…The semitic mind is comfortable only with extremes – light and darkness, truth and falsehood, love and hate -primary colours with no half-shades of compromise in between. The semitic way of saying ‘I prefer this to that’ is ‘I like this and hate that’ (cf. Genesis 29:10-31, Deuteronomy 21:15-17). Thus for the followers of Jesus, to hate their families meant giving the family second place in their affections. Ties of kinship must not be allowed to interfere with their absolute commitment to the kingdom.’ [3]

The second is Luke 9:59-62 where we read

‘To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ But he said to him, ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God’

This again looks like Jesus rejecting the importance of family duties, but as Caird points out, the point of the saying is rather to warn would be disciples:

‘….to reckon with the conflict of loyalties which discipleship inevitably brings. In normal circumstances it is good that a man should have a home of his own in which he can perform his acts of filial piety to his parents, whether in life or in death, and show affection to kindred and friends. All this is part of that family life which God has graciously appointed for his children. But a man must be prepared to sacrifice security, duty, and affection, if he is to respond to the call of the kingdom, a call so urgent and imperative that all other loyalties must give way before it.’ [4]

What this means is that Jesus does not teach that Christians have to leave their parents or reject their siblings. What he does say is that even family ties, vitally important though they are, have to take second place in our loyalties to the demands of God and his kingdom. God has to come even before family if there is ever a conflict between them.

Professor Percy’s second point, that there are many patterns of family life in the Bible and these should not necessarily be honoured today, is true so far as it goes. We are indeed not called to follow dysfunctional forms of family life such as we find in Genesis 29-30. However, we know this because the Bible itself tells us that such forms of family life are a departure from what God ordained at creation

As I noted in my previous article responding to Dr Hayley Matthews:

‘In Genesis God creates human beings in his image and likeness as male and female and commands than to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:26-28). He then establishes marriage between one man and one woman as the family structure through which this command is to be fulfilled (Genesis 2:18-25) and this ordinance remains in place throughout the rest of the Bible.

This means that while it is true that we see lots of different types of households and families in the Bible, when children are not the offspring of a marital relationship between a husband and wife or when a mother or father is not on the scene this always means that something has gone wrong. There is no case in the Bible in which an alternative family structure to a father and a mother and their children is seen as equally desirable. When children are born out of wedlock, or there is a polygamous family structure, or one or both parents are dead and there are thus  widows and orphans, this is a sign of the brokenness of the world stemming from the Fall and not what would have been the case had God’s original intentions for his human creatures been fulfilled.’[5]

However, the existence of such broken forms of family life does not negate the importance of the pattern of family life instituted by God at creation. This pattern remains a key part of God’s provision for human well-being and so Christians need to live within it themselves and to teach and support others to do the same.

Moving on to Professor Percy’s third point, what he says about Moses and Jesus requires important qualification.

First of all, Moses was not ‘abandoned by his birth mother.’  The story in Exodus 2:1-11 is instead about how Moses’ mother and sister ensured that he survived Pharaoh’s threat to kill all the sons of the Hebrews people. The story tells us about how a Jewish family took care of one of its own in the face of the threat of genocide and how this action then became the basis for subsequent deliverance of the Jewish people as a whole. It is thus a story precisely about the importance of family ties.

With regard to Jesus, it is not true that Christian orthodoxy says that there was no ‘human intervention in the birth of Jesus.’ What it says is that there was an indispensable human role in his birth which consisted in Mary providing the egg that was made fertile by God, carrying the resultant baby to term, and giving birth to him when the time came (Luke 1:26-2:7). The traditional title theotokos (‘mother of God’) used with reference to Mary expresses this point by insisting that in his human nature God the Son did have a mother and that that mother was Mary.

The biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus are about how Jesus, who already had a familial relationship with God the Father from all eternity as God the Son, also acquired a human family consisting of his human biological mother, Mary and also a human father, Joseph with siblings then coming along later. Rather than having no family Jesus thus has two.

Turning to Professor Percy’s fourth point, as I also observed last week, it is mistake to argue as he does that the early Church was a household rather than being a family:

‘… it is simply not the case that in the New Testament God creates a new household rather than a new family.  In the New Testament the Church is indeed ‘the household of God’ (Ephesians 2:19), but the form this household takes is a new family in which Christians really are brothers and sisters to each other by reason of their relationship to the same heavenly Father. The difference between this family and normal biological families is that this new family is a result of the supernatural action of God rather than human sexual activity. This point is made explicitly in John 1:12-13:

‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.’[6]

We have already noted that the Bible tells us that Jesus was, and is, a member of two families. He is the eternal Son of God, but also a member of human nuclear family with a mother and a father and brothers and sisters. What the Bible also tells us that all Christians also belong to two families. They are members of their earthly families, but they are also by grace, through adoption (Galatians 4:1-7), members of an eternal heavenly family with God as their Father and Jesus and all other Christians as their brothers and sisters.

Living rightly as a Christians means living rightly as a member of both families. As members of human families Christians are called to love and honour their parents and to love and care for their spouse and their children (Ephesians 5:21-6:4, Colossians 1:18-21, Titus 2:4-5) and as members of the heavenly family they are called also to love God and all their Christian brothers and sisters (1 John 4:7-21).

With regard to Professor Percy’s final point, there is no contradiction between the Church affirming the sanctity of the nuclear family and being an outward facing body ready to welcome everybody regardless of who they are, or the circumstances of their lives.

God has created human beings to live in families consisting of married parents and their children and so it is the calling of Christians to affirm this truth and the consequent importance of everyone living rightly as members of such families. However, God has also created the new supernatural family of the Church and it is the calling of Christians to welcome everyone into this new family and to teach what it means to live rightly as a member of it. That is the point of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.

Conclusion

For Professor Percy, it seems, grace abolishes nature. For him all that matters is the existence of the Church created by the grace of adoption with natural human families totally disappearing from view. However, as St. Thomas Aquinas famously affirms ‘Gratia non tollit naturam, sed perficit’ (grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it).[7] In the case we are considering grace perfects nature because it allows those who are members of natural families to become members of the eternal heavenly family without ceasing to be what they already are.

There are, of course, as Jesus warned us, occasions when we may need to put the requirements of our membership of our heavenly family before membership of our human families, but the latter still remains in place and we are called to honour it as much as possible.

In addition, it is also important to note that when human families are Christian families  membership of the earthly and heavenly families should go together, with the human family acting as what the Christian tradition has called the ‘domestic church,’ in which people are brought up from childhood by their human parents to know the truth about God and what it means to live as his children.[8]

M B Davie 9.

[1] Martyn Percy, ‘Does the Bible Really…Advocate the ‘Nuclear Family?’, ViaMedia.News, 5 July 2019 at https://viamedia.news/.

[2] ‘Nuclear family’, The Chambers Dictionary, 9ed (Edinburgh: Chambers Harrap, 2003), p.1023.

[3] George Caird, Saint Luke (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1963), pp.178-179.

[4] Caird, p.141.

[5] Martin Davie, ‘Why families need fathers and mothers,’  3 July 2019, at https://mbarrattdavie.wordpress.com/.

[6] Davie, ‘Why families need fathers and mothers.’

[7] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, I, 8 ad 2.

[8] This is the vision of family life which lies, for example, behind Luther’s Small Catechism of 1529 which is designed for the father as the head of the family to teach to the household and behind the statement in the Book of Common Prayer marriage service that marriage was ordained ‘for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord and to the praise of his holy name.’

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Why families need fathers and mothers

In the latest contribution to the ViaMedia.News series ‘Does the Bible Really Say…’  Dr Hayley Matthews addresses the question ‘ Does the Bible Really Say… that a family needs ‘a Mummy and a Daddy’?’[1]

Dr Matthew’s argument.

Her answer to this question is ‘no’ and she gives six reasons for this answer.

First, she argues that in the Bible there is no mention of the ‘nuclear family’ consisting of a father and mother and their children. Instead people live in multi-generational households consisting of people related by blood and marriage in a variety of different ways plus servant and slaves.

Secondly, in the Old Testament we see ‘God flouting conventional family ties in unexpected ways through his grace’ by choosing to give blessing to people who are not the first born sons (as in the case of Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Joseph and David) and by passing on his blessing through ‘non blood-line outcasts’ (such as Ruth, Rahab and Mary).

Thirdly, in the New Testament,  Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:50 about his true brothers and sisters being those who do the will of his heavenly Father refer not to the creation of a new biological family, but to the formation of a new household in which those who have previously been outcasts are all welcomed as equals and can call God ‘Abba, Father’ (Romans 8:15).

Fourthly, there are three key turning points in the history of Israel which rely entirely ‘upon non-biological family structures,’ namely the adoption of Moses by Pharaoh’s daughter, the adoption of Esther by Mordecai and the gestation of Jesus ‘to an unmarried Mum from Nowheres-ville.’

Fifthly,  ‘There is biblical precedent for… households to take many forms; single parents, adoption, surrogacy, foster-care, blended and wide-ranging extended families, male, female or a mixture of the two.’

Sixthly, the gender of parents does not matter because there are numerous reasons why two parents of different genders may not be on the scene and because child psychology tells us ‘that what children need are orientation, order, exploration, communication, movement, manipulation of objects, repetition, precision, imagination, facing and constructively responding to error ‘ and  ‘None of these things are gender specific.’

Dr Matthews’s overall conclusion is that:

‘Our call, into our own and God’s households are far beyond all-too-brief biological couplings but based instead upon grace, forgiveness, fidelity, steadfastness, gentleness, kindness, self-control, selflessness, a sense of the ridiculous if not of humour and love beyond measure in an ever-growing ripple of relationships that ever broadens into the eternal household from which and to which we are called. That’s what makes a family…’

The problems with this argument.

There are a number of problems with this argument.

First, while it is true that in the Bible people tend to live in extended households this does not negate the existence or importance of nuclear families made up of parents and their children.

The first and foundational family unit in the Bible is a nuclear family consisting of Adam and Eve and their children (Genesis 2:18-5:5) and thereafter the Bible consistently recognises the existence and importance of the familial relationship between fathers and mothers and their sons and daughters. We can see this, for example, in the command to ‘honour your father and your mother’ in Exodus 20:12, in the exhortation in Proverbs 6:20  ‘My son, keep your father’s commandment, and forsake not your mother’s teaching’ and in the instructions given to husbands and wives and their children in the letters of Paul (Ephesians 5:21-6:4, Colossians 3:18-21, Titus 2:4).

Rather than the household being an alternative to the nuclear family, in the Bible the household is the larger domestic and economic unit within which nuclear families still have a distinct and important existence of their own.

Secondly, while it is perfectly true that God can and does bypass first born sons in favour of some other child of the family, none of the examples given by Dr Matthews negate the importance normally given to primogeniture in the Bible, nor do they undercut the importance that the Bible attaches to the biological relationship between parents and children.

If we take the case of Jacob, for instance, we find that Esau, as the first born son of Isaac and Rebekah, would have been the one to receive a blessing from Isaac had he not ‘despised his birthright’ and traded it to his brother Jacob for a ‘pottage of lentils’ (Genesis 25:27-34). For another example, David is chosen to be King of Israel rather than his older brothers because this was a new appointment that was not dependent on family ties and because God, who ‘looks on the heart,’ saw that David rather than his brothers had the qualities needed in a king (1 Samuel 6:1-13). David’s place in his family was irrelevant to the issue.

Thirdly, Dr Matthew’s depiction of Ruth, Rahab and Mary as ‘non-blood line outcasts’ is misleading. Ruth and Rahab are not Israelites, but become part of the people of Israel through their commitment to the God of Israel (Ruth 1:16, Josh 2:8-14  6:25) and both become carriers of God’s blessing because they have children as a result of marriage (Ruth 4:13-22, Matthew 1:5). At the point when the angel comes to her and she conceives Jesus, Mary is a respectable young Jewish girl and even though she is asked to put her reputation and life in jeopardy by giving birth as a result of a supernatural conception, God ensures that she has a husband and Jesus has an earthly father (Matthew 1:18-25). As numerous nativity scenes testify, Jesus’ earthly family (‘the holy family’) was thus a nuclear family consisting of a mother, a father and a child (with other children being added later).

Fourthly, it is simply not the case that in the New Testament God creates a new household rather than a new family.  In the New Testament the Church is indeed ‘the household of God’ (Ephesians 2:19), but the form this household takes is a new family in which Christians really are brothers and sisters to each other by reason of their relationship to the same heavenly Father. The difference between this family and normal biological families is that this new family is a result of the supernatural action of God rather than human sexual activity. This point is made explicitly in John 1:12-13:

‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.’

Fifthly it is true that both Moses and Esther were adopted and that Mary was not married to Joseph when Jesus was conceived. In these three cases God does indeed work through ‘non-biological family structures.’ However, the fact that he does so for specific reasons on the occasions does not negate the importance of biological family structures as the normal means which God has established to take forward his purposes in creation.

In Genesis God creates human beings in his image and likeness as male and female and commands than to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:26-28). He then establishes marriage between one man and one woman as the family structure through which this command is to be fulfilled (Genesis 2:18-25) and this ordinance remains in place throughout the rest of the Bible.

Sixthly, this means that while it is true that we see lots of different types of households and families in the Bible, when children are not the offspring of a marital relationship between a husband and wife or when a mother or father is not on the scene this always means that something has gone wrong. There is no case in the Bible in which an alternative family structure to a father and a mother and their children is seen as equally desirable. When children are born out of wedlock, or there is a polygamous family structure, or one or both parents are dead and there are thus  widows and orphans, this is a sign of the brokenness of the world stemming from the Fall and not what would have been the case had God’s original intentions for his human creatures been fulfilled.

It is true, as the charity Home for Good argues[2], that adoption and fostering are extremely important forms of Christian service that can achieve an enormous amount of good. However, the good that they achieve lies in helping to mend that which has been broken. Were this not a broken world neither adoption nor fostering would be required since all children would be living with their married parents.

Seventhly, Dr Matthews’ reference to the finding of child psychology fails to acknowledge that decades of research evidence clearly shows that both the marital status and the sex of a child’s parents does matter.  As David Ribar puts it:

‘Reams of social science and medical research convincingly show that children who are raised by their married, biological parents enjoy better physical, cognitive, and emotional outcomes, on average, than children who are raised in other circumstances.’[3]

In similar fashion, Michael Nazir-Ali notes:

‘…the mounting evidence that children who grow up with both their parents are, on the whole, better off than children with lone parents or step -parents, whether that is in terms of mental health, educational performance, crime or sexual behaviour. This is not, in any way, to devalue the sometimes heroic effects of loving single parents or step-parents. It is simply to note the importance of biologically-related families against the frantic and increasingly successful efforts to deconstruct them.’[4]

What all this evidence indicates is that pattern of family life ordained by God, in which children are brought up by their married biological parents is the gold standard for child well being and needs to be supported accordingly by both the Church and the state.[5]

Finally, it is not the case, as Dr Matthews suggests, that ‘what makes a family’ are the characteristics of ‘grace, forgiveness, fidelity, steadfastness, gentleness, kindness, self-control, selflessness, a sense of the ridiculous if not of humour, and love.’ For a family to function properly these elements will certainly need to be present, but they are not what makes a family.  A human family is created through biology, marriage or adoption, while God’s eternal family is created through supernatural grace received through faith and baptism.

Conclusion.

Dr Matthews has not succeeded in showing that the Bible does not say that ‘a family needs a Mummy and a Daddy.’  On the contrary, the Bible tells us that the form of family life ordained by God at creation. is one which requires a father and mother. God ordained that human beings should be fruitful and multiply and that this should happen through two people of the opposite sex entering into marriage and having children as a result. Furthermore, while the effects of the Fall mean that this pattern of family life will never be perfect, the evidence we have shows that it is the pattern that is most conducive to human flourishing.

What we can say, therefore, is that the testimony of both Scripture and natural reason show us that human beings need families and these families need fathers and mothers.

M B Davie 3.7.19

[1] Hayley Matthews, ‘Does the Bible Really Say….that a Family Needs a ‘Mummy and a Daddy;?’ at https://viamedia.news/  29 June, 2019.

[2] Home for Good, at  https://www.homeforgood.org.uk/

[3] David Ribar, ‘Why marriage matters for child wellbeing,’ in The Future of Children: Marriage and Child Wellbeing Revisited, Vol 25, No.2, 2015, p. 12.

[4] Michael Nazir-Ali, Faith, Freedom and the Future (London : Wilberforce Publications, 2016), p.126.

[5] For a detailed study setting out the evidence for this claim see Brenda Almond, The Fragmenting Family (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006).

On misunderstanding Paul – a response to Marcus Greene

The basic claim made in Greene’s paper

In the latest addition to the ViaMedia.News series ‘Does the Bible Really Say,’  Marcus Greene addresses the question ‘Does the Bible Really Say…that St Paul ‘Hates Gays’?’[1]

At the start of his paper Greene answers this question by declaring unequivocally: ‘St Paul doesn’t ‘hate gays’. Short of Jesus, he’s our best friend in the whole of the Scriptures.’

In order to justify this claim he looks first of all at Romans 1:18-32 and I Corinthians 6:9-11, two texts which have been traditionally used to show that Paul disapproved of same-sex sexual activity.

Romans 1:18-32

On Romans 1:18-32 Greene makes two points.

First, Romans 1:26-27 is not about gay people as such, but only about ‘broken’ gay people. In Romans 1:28-32, he says:

‘St Paul is writing about folk who live in brokenness. He’s not writing about all relationships, and he’s not saying that every person is wicked, evil, greedy, envious, murderous, deceitful, malicious, insolent, inventing evil, faithless, loveless and merciless. He is saying that people (and this means predominantly straight people in our understanding – though Paul wouldn’t know the term) who are broken from God are set on this depraved path.’

This in turn means, that:

…. even if verses 26 & 27, the middle verses in this passage, are about gay people, in context they are about sinful, broken, idolatrous gay people. They are not a theology helping us to think about how to respond to all LGBT folk in church – any more than verses 28-32 are an understanding of all straight people in church.’

Secondly, Paul’s argument that same-sex relationships are against nature does not mean such relationships are wrong:

‘People get very heated over the words ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ (better – ‘against nature’) in Romans 1.26-27. “There you go – St Paul says being gay is unnatural.”

I was always taught to let the Bible interpret the Bible. And St Paul is a great help in this, because he uses the same words later in Romans.

In Romans 11.24 we again have ‘natural’ and ‘contrary to nature’ being used. It’s the same language. I know that in Romans 1 some people want to see ‘natural’ as a pure good and ‘against nature’ as an unparalleled bad – but in Romans 11, it is we Gentile Christians who are described by St Paul as being grafted into a cultivated olive tree ‘against nature’, a process which most of us rather depend on, and look at as being a positive thing.

It seems that God can act ‘against nature’ and in doing so produce something positive. ‘Nature’ in St Paul is not the final arbiter of good and evil. We do not worship nature – the creation; that’s rather the point of Romans 1! We worship the Creator of nature, who made the creation to be a blessing for us.’

1 Corinthians 6:9-11

On 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 Greene rejects the NIV translation of the two Greek words, malakoi and arsenokoitai in verse 9 as ‘men who have sex with men.’ He writes:

Malakoi is well translated by the Authorised Version as ‘effeminate’, but I think we hear the wrong connotation with that. In Roman culture … an effeminate man could be one who was seeking the attention of women. Quite the reverse of our expectation. Also, the list of words doesn’t link ‘arsenokoitai’ with ‘malakoi’ – our presumptions do. If malakoi is a ‘ladies man’ it fits well with ‘adulterers’, the word before it. The effect would be – “the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, men who prey on women, men who prey on men, those who steal, those who are greedy…”

This is what some of the believers in Corinth were. Not gay – as indeed they aren’t being critiqued for being straight – but people displaying the evidences of broken relationship with God. People not loving their neighbour. People draining life from others in order to serve themselves. People who are abusing life to excess because they have not discovered Jesus’ gift of living life to the full. That’s what they were.’

He then further contends that the emphasis of 1 Corinthians 5-7 as a whole is about the sins of straight people:

‘1 Corinthians 5 talks of problems in the fellowship to do with failures in heterosexual marriage. 1 Corinthians 7 talks of the gift of marriage in the community – and the gift of celibacy for some in that community. 1 Corinthians 6 is not a bracketed text in the middle with a theology for gay people. It’s part of this sweep, and its clear emphasis is on the sins of straight people.’

The bigger picture

In the final section of his paper Greene appeals to Galatians 6:15: ‘Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation ‘ and Ephesians 2, 15, 19: ‘“His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two (Jew and Gentile) thus making peace…Consequently you are no longer foreigners and strangers.”  These verses, he suggests, give us the bigger picture, the broader Pauline vision, within which we should address questions concerning sexuality.

Paul, he writes:

‘… had a huge, transformative and truly revolutionary vision of a new community – a new humanity – that broke every social and economic rule in the book. No slave or free, no male or female, no Jew or Gentile. Every believer becoming one in Christ. God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved. Children together by grace through faith.’

Greene acknowledges that Paul ‘has a huge focus on sexual propriety,’ However:

‘… for some today to think they have a hold on this which begins by making others less free, less human, less reflective of the relational love within the Godhead is again to miss the transforming gift of God’s new humanity.

Christianity ought never be mistaken for a heterosexual fertility cult – and St Paul’s call for abstinence is not aimed at gay folk but perhaps at some of the straight folk who get that emphasis wrong!’

The problems with Greene’s argument.

Greene’s argument is unconvincing for a number of reasons.

The language of gay and straight

First, Greene’s repeated use of the terms ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ is misleading. These terms reflect a late twentieth century worldview in which classifies people according to their sexual desires. This is not how Paul’s anthropology works. For him, as for the Bible as whole, people are not defined by their sexual desires, but by their sex. The categories he works with are not ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ but ‘male’ and female.’  In consequence his sexual ethics are not based on how people should behave as ‘gay’ or ‘straight,’ but on how they should behave as those who God has created as male or female.

Romans 1:26-27

Secondly, Greene misunderstands Paul’s argument in Romans 1. What Paul says about same-sex sexual activity in Romans 1:26-27 is not aimed at a particular sub-set of ‘gay’ people who manifest a broken relationship with God in a way that other ‘gay’ people do not.

As has already been noted, the very concept of ‘gay’ people is foreign to Paul’s thinking and thus needs to be set aside. Paul’s argument is that all human beings are broken (see Romans 3:22-23), but that for some men and women this brokenness manifests itself in having sexual intercourse with members of their own sex.

As Tom Wright notes, the starting point for Paul’s argument is that God created men and women to complement each other, to have sexual relations with each other and to be procreative (‘fruitful’ Genesis 1:28) as a result. In this context, the point that Paul is making about same-sex sexual activity:

‘…is not simply that ‘we Jews don’t approve of this,’ or ‘relationships like this are always unequal or exploitative.’ His point is ‘this is not what males and females were made for.’ Nor is he suggesting that everyone who feels sexually attracted to members of their own sex, or everyone who engages in actual same-sex relations, has got to that point through committing specific acts of idolatry. Nor, again, does he suppose that all those who find themselves in that situation have arrived there by a specific choice to give up heterosexual possibilities. Reading the text like that reflects a modern individualism rather than Paul’s larger, all-embracing perspectives. Rather, he is talking about the human race as a whole. His point is not that ‘there are some exceptionally wicked people out there who do these revolting things,’ but ‘the fact that such clear distortions of creator’s male-plus-female intention occur in the world indicates that the human race as a whole is guilty of a character twisting idolatry.’ He sees the practice of same-sex relations as a sign that the human world in general is out of joint.’[2]

Greene’s appeal to Romans 11:24 to attempt to give a positive spin to Paul’s description of same-sex sexual activity as ‘unnatural’ (para phusin) fails because it does not recognize that in the two different contexts Paul is using the same phrase in two different ways. In Romans 11:24 he is referring to an act of divine grace that goes beyond what is naturally the case, whereas in Romans 1:26-27 Paul is referring to acts of human sin that go against nature in the sense of being contrary to the good purposes of the creator God.

1 Corinthians 6:9-11

Thirdly, Greene also misunderstands what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6.

The first point here is that 1 Corinthians 5-7 does not have an ‘emphasis on the sins of straight people’ for the simple reason that, as we have already noted, the concept of ‘straight’ people as opposed to ‘gay’ people does not figure in Paul’s theology

The second point is that Greene has simply chosen to ignore what is now the established scholarly consensus about the meaning of the Greek  terms malakoi and arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthians 6:9. To quote Tom Wright again, these are:

‘…two words which have been much debated, but which experts have now established, clearly refer to the practice of male homosexuality. The two terms refer respectively to the passive or submissive partner and the active or aggressive one, and Paul places both roles on his list of unacceptable behaviour.’[3]

The scholarly consensus about the matter is supported even by ‘gay affirming’ scholars and the reasons why this is the case are helpfully explained by the distinguished American church historian Eugene Rice (himself supportive of same-sex relationships) in his article on Paul for the online GLBTQ encyclopedia:

‘ At 1 Cor. 6:9-10, Paul lists a heterogeneous group of sinners whom he bars from the kingdom of God. The sexual offenders consist of fornicators, adulterers, and two kinds of men: malakoi and arsenokoitai–the nouns are plural and masculine.

The meanings of these Greek nouns have been the subject of lively debate, largely provoked by gay authors anxious to show that Paul and the early church had not intended to condemn homosexuality per se as harshly as has been traditionally supposed, but only a degraded type of pederasty associated with prostitution and child abuse.

Recent scholarship has shown conclusively that the traditional meanings assigned to these words stand. So do the traditional translations: the Latin translation “commonly used in the church,” and therefore known as the Vulgate, and the English King James Version (KJV).

Malakoi

Malakoi (Latin Vulgate: molles) should have caused no problem. There is ample evidence that in sexual contexts, in both classical and post-classical times, malakos designated the receptive partner in a male same-sex act, a meaning decisively reconfirmed in late antiquity by the physician Caelius Aurelianus when he tells us that the Greeks call malakoi males whom the Latins call molles or subacti, males, that is, who play the receptive role in anal intercourse.

Paul’s malakoi, we can say with certainty, are males–boys, youths, or adults–who have consented, either for money or for pleasure, for some perceived advantage or as an act of affectionate generosity, to be penetrated by men.

Arsenokoitai

The word is a verbal noun, and its earliest attestation is in this verse of Paul’s. It is a compound of arsen = “male” and koités = “a man who lies with (or beds).” And so we have, describing Oedipus, metrokoités, “a man who lies with his mother,” doulokoités, “a man who lies with maidservants or female slaves,” polykoités, “a man who lies with many,” and onokoités, “a man who lies with donkeys,” said of Christians in a graffito from Carthage of about 195.

Arsenokoitai are therefore “men who lie with males,” and the Vulgate’s masculorum concubitores (where masculorum is an objective genitive), renders the Greek exactly to mean “men who lie with males,” “men who sleep with males,” “men who have sex with males.”

The source of arsenokoitai is in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint (finished around 130 B. C. E. for the use of Greek-speaking Jews). The Septuagint of Leviticus 18:22 reads: Kai meta arsenos ou koiméthés koitén gynaikeian, and of Lev. 20:13, Kai os an koiméthé meta arsenos koitén gynaikos . . . ; Englished we have, “With a male you shall not lie the bed/intercourse (koité) of a woman,” and “Whoever lies with a male the koité of a woman, [both have done an abominable thing, they shall be put to death.]”

The dependence of Paul’s arsenokoitai on the Levitical arsenos koitén demonstrates unequivocally its source and confirms his intended meaning. The word was almost certainly coined by Greek-speaking Jews. Understood in the context of what we know about role playing in most ancient same-sex relationships, malakoi are the receptive parties and arsenokoitai the inserters in male-male anal intercourse.’[4]

In the light of this evidence Greene’s argument simply collapses. 1 Corinthians 6:9 is about men who have sex with men and Paul says such activity bars people from God’s kingdom. However, Paul goes on to say in v11 that that is not the end of the matter. How people have behaved in the past is not the last word. To quote Wright once more, Paul’s message is that:

‘God himself has provided the way in which people can leave their past, and indeed their present, behind, and move towards his future. You can be washed clean, whatever has happened in the past. You can be one of God’s special people, whatever you are in the present.’[5]

The bigger picture

Fourthly, Greene is absolutely correct when he says that Paul has a ‘huge, transformative and truly revolutionary vision of a new community.’  Where Greene goes wrong is in failing to recognize that Paul’s ‘focus on sexual propriety’ is an integral part of this vision.

Paul has a vision of a community in which, because of the redeeming work of Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit, anyone, no matter who they are, or what they have done, can begin to live as the people God made them to be. However, for Paul living in this way involves a call to ‘glorify God in your body’ (1 Corinthians 6:20) and this means living a life marked either by singleness and sexual abstinence, or sexual faithfulness within (heterosexual) marriage (1 Corinthians 6:12-7:40). Any other form of sexual activity (including same-sex activity) is porneia (sexual immorality), which is something Paul warns all Christians to eschew (see Galatians 5:19, Ephesians 5:3, Colossians 3:5).

This is not, as Greene seems to think, just a message for ‘straight’ people, but for everybody, whatever their sexual desires. Nor does it mean condemning people to be ‘less free, less human, less reflective of the relational love within the Godhead.’ There is abundant evidence that people who are same-sex attracted, but who live in accordance with the pattern set out by St. Paul, can and do live lives that are fully free, fully human and fully reflective of the Triune love of God. [6]

Conclusion

For the reasons explained above, asking whether Paul hates gay people involves asking the wrong question. ‘Gay’ and ‘straight’ are simply not categories of his thought.[7]  However, what one can properly ask is whether his letters show that Paul hated people who engaged in same-sex sexual activity.

The answer is ‘no.’ We know he thought such activity was unequivocally sinful, but there is no evidence at all that he hated the people concerned. On the contrary, his letters show that his deepest desire was that they, along with all other people, should flourish as God intended, both in this life and the next. His warnings against sexual immorality were intended to help people achieve this goal and thus were motivated not by hate, but by love.

M B Davie 22.6.19

[1] Marcus Greene, ‘Does the Bible Really Say…that St Paul ‘Hates Gays’?,’  21 June 2019 at

https://viamedia.news/.

[2] Tom Wright, Paul For Everyone – Romans Part I (London: SPCK, 2004), pp.22-23.

[3] Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone -1 Corinthians (London: SPCK, 2003), p. 69.

[4] Eugene Rice, ‘Paul, St.’, GLBTQ Encyclopedia, 2015 at http://www.glbtqarchive.com/ssh/paul_S.pdf.

[5] Wright, I Corinthians, p.70.

[6] For the evidence for this point see the material available on and through the ‘Living Out’ website at

https://www.livingout.org/ or the website of the ‘True Freedom Trust’ at https://truefreedomtrust.co.uk/.

[7] Its rather like asking if George Washington was a Democrat or a Republican.

Were the Sodomites sodomites? A response to Meg Warner

The traditional view of the story of Sodom

In the Bible the story of the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah is consistently depicted as an example of the judgement of God upon human sinfulness. The people of Sodom ‘were wicked, great sinners against the Lord’ (Genesis 13:13) and God eventually wiped them and the neighbouring cities from the face of the earth.

The story of the final destruction of these cities is told in Genesis 19:1-29 and the traditional Christian reading of this story is that the final act of sinfulness by the men of Sodom was an attempt to have homosexual sex with the two male visitors staying in Lot’s house. On the basis of this reading of the story ‘sodomite’ has become a traditional term for those who engage in same-sex sexual activity (particularly male-male sexual activity) and Genesis 19 has become one of the standard proof texts used to show that such activity is sinful.

Dr Warner’s three alternative readings

In response to this, those theologians who have sought to argue that same-sex sexual activity ought not to be regarded as sinful have sought to challenge the traditional reading of Genesis 19.  In her latest contribution to the ViaMedia.News series ‘Does the Bible really say…’  Dr Meg Warner follows this revisionist approach by arguing that the Bible doesn’t really tell us that the Sodomites were sodomites.[1]

In her paper she puts forward three alternative readings of the Sodom story.

The story of Sodom is about rape

First, she argues that the story of Sodom is irrelevant to the issue of consensual loving same-sex relationships:

‘Genesis 19 may be many things, but it is NOT evidence about God’s attitude towards loving, sexual relationships between men (or women, for that matter). It tells a story in which a group of men apparently threaten to pack-rape some other men (who are actually angels), but it has nothing to say about the kind of same-sex relationships that are currently getting the churches so het-up.’

The story of Sodom is about using sex to become divine

Secondly, she suggests that the intended sin of the men of Sodom may actually have been the attempt to use sex to achieve divine status:

‘Nowhere else in the book of Genesis is concern expressed about sex between men, but sexual activity between humans and divine beings is a pervasive theme. In Genesis 6 the wickedness (r’) of humankind, manifesting itself in sexual congress between ‘daughters of humans’ and ‘sons of God’, so grieves God that God decides to blot out all humans and living things from the face of the earth. Interestingly, the same Hebrew root is used by Lot in Genesis 19:7, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly (r’)’ and by the narrator in Genesis 13:13, ‘Now, the people of Sodom were wicked (r’) …’. This strikingly consistent use of the language of wickedness (r’) supports an argument that, had the men of Sodom gone on to have sex with the visitors, their crime would not have been homosexuality but hubris—the pursuit of divinity by means of intercourse with divine beings.’

The story of Sodom is a story of misunderstanding

Thirdly (and this seems to be her preferred reading), Dr Warner suggests that the story can be read a story in which Lot misunderstands the request made by the Sodomites to ‘know’ his visitors:

‘Interpreters of Genesis 19 today are increasingly likely to look past their gut-reactions to words such as ‘Sodom’ and ‘Sodomite’ and to scenarios of same-sex violence, and to focus instead on the literary and socio-political contexts of the text. They identify both Genesis 18 (Abraham’s welcome of three strangers at Mamre) and 19 as stories about hospitality that reflect the hospitality codes of their time, recognising Genesis 18 as a story of hospitality to strangers in a non-urban context and Genesis 19 as a story about the particular challenges and tensions of offering hospitality in an urban setting. These challenges and tensions arise as a consequence of the risks inherent in inviting strangers to remain within city walls overnight. Issuing such invitations was the privilege of a city’s male citizens. The conflict in Genesis 19 arises from the fact that Lot assumes this privilege for himself, as can be seen clearly in verse 9, in which the angry citizens of Sodom say, ‘This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge!’

The men of Sodom aren’t just feeling lustful on a slow Friday night. They are angry (and, to some extent, justifiably so) with Johnny-come-lately Lot for placing them and their women and children in danger by inviting strangers to stay within the walls overnight. They want to ‘know’ (yd’) who the visitors are, so that they can assess the level of threat. Lot, who doesn’t ‘get’ all of this any more than some modern commentators (!), misunderstands the men’s demands as sexual but is unwilling to allow strangers under his roof to be mistreated, and offers his virgin daughters in their place – thus responding to the ‘comically grotesque’ in-hospitality of the Sodomites with comically grotesque hospitality, unimaginable to today’s readers in the West, but not unknown still in some parts of the world, and iconic in Lot’s own context.’

The problems with Dr Warner’s three readings

What are we to make of these three alternative readings?

If we take her preferred reading first of all, the first thing to note is that she has misinterpreted Genesis 19:9. The accusation that Lot is seeking to ‘play the judge,’ even though he is an alien, refers not to his offering his two visitors hospitality, but to his request to the men of Sodom not to do harm to his visitors ‘…only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof’ (v 8). The conflict in Genesis 19 is thus not about Lot offering hospitality, but about his refusal to acquiesce to the demands of the crowd.

More fundamentally, however, this reading of the text depends on our knowing about the motives of the men of Sodom in a way that Lot does not.  How do we know that Lot’s belief that the men’s demand is sexual is a misunderstanding?  The text certainly does not say so.

Genesis has told us about the wickedness of Sodom in 13:13 and this point is reinforced in Genesis 18:20 where we are told that ‘the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave.’  According to Genesis 18:21 the purpose of the visit of the two angels to Sodom is to give the cities one last chance  by allowing God to assess the situation for himself; ‘I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry which has come to me; and if not I will know.’

In this context the purpose of the story in Genesis 19:1-11 is to show why the cities fail the test and are destroyed.  The reason they fail the test (and why Sodom and Gomorrah are subsequently destroyed) is that the men of Sodom confirm the depravity of the inhabitants of the cities by seeking to act ‘wickedly’ (19:6) in wanting to ‘know’ Lot’s visitors.  The story thus only makes sense if the men of Sodom really are wanting to act in a wicked fashion. The idea that it is all one big misunderstanding simply doesn’t fit the plot line of the narrative.

Even if we accept this point, it does not tell us what the wickedness intended by the Sodomites was. However, it is clear what the wickedness was.

  • The juxtaposition of the use of the Hebrew verb yada (‘know’) in verses 5 and 8 indicates that the verb has the same meaning in both cases and since the meaning in verse 8 is clearly sexual, ‘Behold, I have two daughters who have not known man,’ it follows that the meaning in the request in verse 5 ‘that we may know them’ must be the same. The men of Sodom want to have sex with Lot’s visitors.
  • This reading of the text is reinforced by the fact that in Judges 19:22-26, a text which scholars generally agree is based on the Sodom story (and which is thus the first commentary on it), the verb yada is also used with a consistently sexual meaning.
  • This reading of the text is further supported by the nature of Lot’s counter offer to the men of Sodom, have sex with my two daughters instead of my two visitors, and by the double use of the specific term ‘male’ (anse) in 19:4 (itself an intertextual echo of the use of the term ‘male’ in the reference to the wickedness of Sodom in Genesis 13:13). Those who are proposing to act wickedly in Sodom are the male inhabitants of the city and the nature of their proposed wickedness is sex with Lot’s (supposedly) male visitors.
  • Finally, this reading of the text is supported by the fact noted by James De Young that in the literary structure of Genesis the story of Sodom forms part of a trio of stories that sit between the promise of the birth of Isaac in Genesis 18:9-15 and its fulfilment in Genesis 21:1-7, the other two being the story of the incest of Lot and his daughters (Genesis 19:30-38) and the story of Abraham, Sarah and Abimelech (Genesis 20:1-18). As De Young explains ‘each episode relates sexual sin and its punishment…The literary structure of the text demands a homosexual meaning for the sin of Sodom. Illicit sexual enjoyment or opportunism links all three episodes.’[2]

Moving on to Dr Warner’s second suggestion, her idea that we can read Genesis 19 as being about the desire of the men of Sodom to use sex to attain divinity is problematic for a number of reasons.

First, it is simply not the case, as Dr Warner claims, that ‘sexual activity between humans and divine beings’ is a ‘pervasive theme’ in the book of Genesis. There is only one text where such activity might possibly be referred to, namely Genesis 6:1-4, and even in this text it is much more probable that the ‘sons of God’ are male human beings of the line of Seth rather than angels.[3]

Secondly, there is no indication in the text of Genesis 19 that the men of Sodom know that Lot’s visitors are angels. Verse 5 tells us that the men of Sodom referred to them as ‘men.’ The reader of Genesis knows that the visitors are angels. The men of Sodom do not.

Thirdly, In Jude 7 the Greek words sarkos heteras (translated ‘unnatural lust’ in the RSV) literally mean ‘a different kind of flesh.’ What Jude 7 thus says is that the men of Sodom ‘pursued a different kind of flesh’ and some commentators have taken this to mean that they sought to have sex with angels. Dr Warner accepts this idea, but a more probable interpretation is that the ‘different kind of flesh’ they pursued was the flesh of other men rather than the flesh of women. In the words of Peter Davids in his commentary on Jude, ‘…it is more likely that Jude too is thinking of homosexual activity as the ‘different kind of flesh’ (different not from themselves, but from the women they were supposed to desire).’[4]

This view is supported (a) by the fact that it would have been as obvious to Jude as to us that the men of Sodom did not know that Lot’s visitors were angels, (b) by the fact that there is no other Jewish or early Christian writing that supports the idea that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah  was a desire for sex with angels[5] and (c) by the fact that the aorist tenses used in Jude 7 indicate that the judgement of God occurred when the inhabitants of Sodom, Gomorrah and the surrounding cities had already acted immorally and ‘pursued a different kind of flesh,’ and this existing sexual immorality cannot have involved seeking sex with angels.

If we turn to Dr Warner’s first suggestion, which is that even if the Sodom story is about sex it is about rape rather than about loving sexual relationships, the point to note is that, as Victor Hamilton points out in his commentary on Genesis, Hebrew has a vocabulary used to describe rape and this is not used in Genesis 19:5.[6] All that this verse tells us, therefore, is that the men of Sodom wanted to have sexual relations with Lot’s visitors. It does not limit what the men of Sodom were contemplating to rape even if the context suggests that that this may have been what the crowd had in mind.

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

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

Conclusion

What all this means is that none of the three alternative readings of the story of Sodom proposed by Dr Warner are persuasive. The best reading of Genesis 19:1-11 remains the traditional one that sees the Sodomites (and the inhabitants of the neighbouring cities) as people who engaged in same-sex sexual activity and wwere thus in the traditional sense sodomites.

Furthermore as Sam Allberry, who is himself same-sex attracted, notes, according to Jude 7:

‘What happened at Sodom is clearly meant to be a cautionary tale. They are an example of facing God’s judgment. Peter says much that same. Sodom and Gomorrah stand ‘as an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly’ (2 Peter 2:6). Jude makes it clear that their ungodliness involved sexual immorality. They were punished for sexual sin along with the other sins of which they were guilty. Their destruction serves as a warning: God takes sexual sin very seriously.’[7]

Because God takes sexual sin very seriously it follows that orthodox Christians are entirely right to get ‘het up’ about same-sex sexual activity, just as they should get het up about all forms of sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage.

M B Davie 17.6.19

[1] Meg Warner, ‘Does the Bible Really Say… that Sodomites were sodomites? ‘  https://viamedia.news/  13 June, 2019.

[2] James De Young, Homosexuality: Contemporary Claims Examined in Light of the Bible and Other Ancient  Literature and Law (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2000), pp.39-40.

[3] For this point see Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh – sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), pp.181-184.

[4] Peter Davids, The Letters of 2 Peter and Jude (Grand Rapids/Nottingham: Apollos, 2006), p.53.

[5] The apocryphal Jewish text The Testament of Naphtali has been suggested as an example, but this is not the most  likely reading of this text.

[6] Victor Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), pp.34-35

[7] Sam Allberry, Is God Anti-Gay? (Epson: The Good Book Company, 2013), p.28. Italics in the original.

A response to David Gillett ‘Does the Bible Really Say that… Same-Sex Love is Wrong?’

In the latest article in the Via Media.News series ‘Does the Bible Really Say that…’ the former Bishop of Bolton, David Gillett, addresses the issue of whether the Bible really views same-sex love as wrong.[1]

Bishop Gillett’s argument

The starting point for his article is his conviction that ‘unlike in the ancient Near East, we understand that God creates us with different sexual orientations.’ As a consequence, he says, ‘we now approach the Bible with a broader and different set of questions than believers and scholars of former ages.’

Bishop Gillett then suggests that we should not begin looking at what the Bible says about same-sex love by looking at those ‘6 or so verses in the Bible where certain same-sex activities are forbidden in differing cultures, contexts and religious situations,’ in the same way that we would not begin a study of heterosexual love by looking at those forms of sexual activity prohibited by the Bible.

In line with this approach he begins instead by looking at the biblical accounts of Ruth and Naomi and David and Jonathan. What these accounts show, he writes, ‘is a quality of commitment and relationship which is part of our God-given humanity.’

He next goes on to argue that in spite of the fact that the Church has frequently surrounded sexual activity with ‘prohibitions, cautions and caveats’ it is nonetheless the case that ‘sexual relationship is part of the very essence of God’s good gifts to the whole of humanity.’

Because this so, he contends we should pose a fresh question to the creation narrative in Genesis 2 which is How will a gay Adam whom God has made discover the partner ‘fit for him’?’ The answer, Bishop Gillett says, is that:

He will naturally discover the answer for a wholesome, enjoyable and intimate sexual relationship with another man. It is a denial of God’s creative purposes to prohibit sexual expression to same-sex couples in their relationship while encouraging it between two of the opposite sex, as all are equally part of God’s good creation.’

Understanding that some people are created as gay also means, he argues that we now need to read passages such as Romans 1:26-27 in a new way. In Romans 1, he says, Paul is not:

‘… issuing an apostolic evaluation of the permanent faithful same-sex loving relationships which we see with many of our LGBT+ friends. Rather, he is condemning salacious sexual experimentation, domination of slaves or minors, promiscuity and pagan cultic practices and prostitution.’

Finally, Bishop Gillett concludes his article by appealing to three New Testament texts which he thinks show how the Gospel calls Christians to accept all people equally, regardless of their sexuality.

The first text is Acts 10:15 What God has called clean, you must not call profane.’ In this verse Peter ‘sees that what God creates as clean and acceptable must not be categorized as unclean or unacceptable, even if the law or religious tradition claims otherwise.’ For us this means:

‘… we must abandon the unjust and unjustifiable categorization of LGBT+ people and their relationships as somehow less than fully wholesome. They are an equal part of the diversity of God’s good creation. Same-sex love is as natural, good and wholesome for gay and lesbian people as are male-female sexual relationships for the rest of us.’

The second text is Ephesians 2:14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one, and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.’ What this tells us is that ‘the loving action of God in Christ’ breaks down the division between those who are gay and those who are straight and so ‘For us to seek to build such walls and treat others as ‘outsiders’ is to put the Gospel into reverse.’

The third text is Galatians 3:28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ In this verse Paul:

‘… makes clear that all the inherited divisions within humanity which have marred our communities and given power to one group over another have no place within the community redeemed by Christ.’

This means that:

The Church, if it is true to its very essence, must be at the forefront of treating LGBT+ people and their relationships with total equality. Where this is denied, the Gospel itself is diminished and robbed of its power, making the good news ‘bad news’ for many.’

According to Bishop Gillett, the message of ‘full acceptance and inclusion’ contained in these three verses

‘… affirms the value of same-sex couples. It forms the basis of how we can support and celebrate same-sex relations and equal marriage as an outworking of God’s will for the whole of his creation in all its wonderful diversity.

It is something which, without fear of disregarding the bible’s authority within the Church, we can proclaim as just, equitable and worthy of celebration!’

What are we to make of this argument?

The first issue raised by Bishop Gillett’s argument is on what basis he thinks we now know that some people are created by God for a sexual relationship with those of the same sex as themselves. There are two possible ways we might know this, through what we can observe of the way God has made the world and through God’s revelation of his creative intention in the Bible.

If we begin with what we can learn from the way God has made the world we discover that God has made human beings in a particular way. To quote the American writer Christopher Tollefsen:

‘… our identity as animal organisms is the foundation of our existence as selves. But fundamental to our existence as this animal is our sex. We are male or female organisms in virtue of having a root capacity for reproductive function, even when that capacity is immature or damaged. In human beings, as is the case with many other organisms, that function is one to be performed jointly with another human being; unlike the digestive function, no individual human being suffices for its performance.

Accordingly, reproductive function in human beings is distributed across the two sexes, which are identified by their having the root capacity for one or the other of the two general structural and behavioural patterns involved in human reproduction. In male humans, this capacity is constituted by the structures necessary for the production of male gametes and the performance of the male sex act, insemination. In females, the capacity is constituted by the structures necessary for the production of oocytes and the performance of the female sex act, the reception of semen in a manner disposed to conception.’[2]

What this means is that human beings are designed to have sexual intercourse with members of the opposite sex. This is how God has created human beings to be. That is also why in Romans 1:26-27 Paul says that sexual relations between two people of the same sex are ‘unnatural.’ The point that Paul is making is that the very structure of the human body shows that men were designed by God to have sex with women and vice versa. To have same-sex sex is thus to disregard what the created order teaches us about the will of God for his human creatures in the same way that idolatry involves disregarding what the created order teaches us about God’s nature and existence. [3]

The biblical accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 affirm and supplement the witness of the created order. Genesis 1 declares that God has created human beings in his image and likeness as male and female and has given them the mandate to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:26-28). Genesis 2 likewise declares that the proper partner for the male Adam is the female Eve and that God has ordained marriage between a man and a woman as the proper context for sexual union and hence the means by which the mandate to have offspring is meant to be fulfilled (Genesis 2:18-24).

Bishop Gillett’s suggestion that we can read Genesis 2 as saying that the proper sexual partner for a ‘gay Adam’ is another man involves setting aside the very point that Genesis 2 is making, which is that by God’s design the proper sexual partner for a man is a woman.

What all this means is that neither nature nor Scripture support Bishop Gillett’s contention that God has created some people to have sexual intercourse with members of their own sex. It follows that we therefore cannot say that this is something that we now know.

Moving on to the second point that the bishop makes, the biblical stories of Ruth and Naomi and David and Jonathan do indeed show qualities of ‘commitment and relationship’ which are an important part of our God-given humanity. However, what neither story suggests is that such commitment and relationship can find its legitimate expression in a same-sex sexual relationship. Neither story hints at any such thing.

It is true that both stories show that love between two people of the same sex is morally acceptable, but love and sex are not the same thing. The stories affirm same-sex love, but they do not affirm same-sex sex.

The bishop’s third point, that we need to read Romans 1 in a new way, is equally misleading. There is nothing in what Paul says in Romans 1:26-27 that suggests that Paul is only rejecting particular forms of same-sex sexual activity. As we have already noted, the point that Paul is making is that all forms of male-male and female-female sexual intercourse are wrong because they go against the way God created human beings to be. There can be no exceptions because there are no human beings whom God has created in a different way.

This brings us on to the bishop’s fourth point, the claim that we must regard same-sex sexual relationships as ‘wholesome’ because they are ‘an equal part of the diversity of God’s good creation.’ There is nothing in Scripture to support this claim and, as we have seen, it is also unsupported by the witness of nature.

The bishop’s final point is that what is said about the inclusive nature of the Gospel in Ephesians 2:14 and Galatians 3:28 means that the Church must accept gay and lesbian people and their relationships. The problem with this part of his argument is that it confuses acceptance of all types of people and acceptance of all form of behaviour. The New Testament is clear that all types of people, whatever their race, sex, or social standing are to be welcomed into the Church on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ (this is the point that Paul is making in Galatians 3:28). However, it is equally clear that becoming part of the Church brings with it an obligation to abandon certain forms of behaviour.

In his letter to the Ephesians, for example, Paul insists that Gentiles are part of the Church just as much as Jews, but he also tells his readers that they must no longer engage in Gentile forms of behaviour:

Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds;  they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart; they have become callous and have given themselves up to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness. You did not so learn Christ! – assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus.  Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness’ (Ephesians 4:17-24).

Among the forms of behaviour which are thus off limits for Christians are all forms of same-sex sexual activity.

The New Testament builds on the condemnation of male homosexual activity in the Old Testament law (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13) by declaring that both male and female same-sex relationships are symptoms of the way human beings have turned away from God (Romans 1:26-27). They are one of the sinful ways of life from which God has rescued Christians (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). They are examples of conduct which is contrary to ‘sound doctrine’ and the ‘glorious gospel’ (1 Timothy 1:10-11). In addition, the New Testament also includes same-sex sexual activity when it says that Christians must avoid all forms of porneia or sexual immorality (see for instance Mark 7:21, Galatians 5:19, 1 Thessalonians 4:3 and Hebrews 13:4).

What this means is that while Christians must welcome both those with same-sex attraction and those in same-sex relationships, they also have a duty to make it crystal clear that all forms of same-sex sexual activity, like all forms of sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage, are contrary to the will of God.

Conclusion

We have to say, therefore, that none of the points put forward by Bishop Gillett in his article are persuasive.

We do not now know that God created some people to be Gay or Lesbian. We cannot rightly read Genesis 2, or the stories of Ruth and Naomi and David and Jonathan, as supporting same-sex sexual relationships. Romans 1:26-27 sees all forms of same-sex sex as contrary to the way God created human beings to be and we have no basis for saying that same-sex sexual relationships are regarded by God as ‘wholesome.’ Finally, while Christians must welcome all people, the New Testament is clear that there are certain forms of behaviour that are off limits for those in the Church and that this includes same-sex sex.

M B Davie 10.6.19

[1] David Gillett, ‘Does the Bible Really Say that, ‘Same-Sex Love is Wrong?’ at https://viamedia.news/2019/06/06/does-the-bible-really-say-that-same-sex-love-is-wrong/.

[2] Christopher Tollefsen, ‘Sex identity,’ Public Discourse, 12 July 2015, text at http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2015/07/15306/.

[3] For this point see Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), pp.254-270.

Why the Bible is clear about marriage – a response to Martyn Percy

In the latest addition to the ‘Does the Bible really…’ series published on the Via Media. News website on 31 May 2019, Professor Martyn Percy addresses the question ‘Does the Bible really… Give us a clear definition of marriage?’[1]

Given that this is the question that his article is supposed to be addressing, it is unfortunate that he never gets around to answering it. In his article he explains why he thinks we should not adopt a ‘fundamentalistic’ approach to the Bible, highlights the problems, as he sees them, of adhering to a traditional ‘biblical’ view of marriage in practice, and stresses that a loving marriage is a ‘sacramental token of love.’ However, none of this answers this question of whether the Bible gives us a clear definition of marriage.

The nearest Professor Percy gets to answering this question is when he claims, without any further evidence or explanation, that ‘Scripture does not lay down one pattern of marriage’ and that ‘The Bible offers several patterns of marriage.’

What are we to make of this claim that the Bible does not offer us one pattern of marriage, but several?

In one of my favourite Christian novels the hero declares ‘the good stuff is in the details.’ In terms of our approach to the Bible what this means is that we cannot rest content with the sort of unverified generalisations that Professor Percy offers us in his article. Rather, we have to consider the details of what the Bible says on any given topic. If we do this in relation to marriage we discover that what Professor Percy says is misleading for a number of reasons.

First, the Bible restricts what it says about marriage to marriage between people of the opposite sex. It is simply not the case that there are two patterns of marriage in Scripture, one heterosexual and the other homosexual. As Michael Brown writes ‘Every single reference to marriage in the entire Bible speaks of heterosexual unions, without exception, to the point that a Hebrew idiom for marriage is for a man ‘to take a wife.’’[2]

Secondly, the Bible is also silent about polyandry. There are no examples in the Bible of a woman with multiple husbands.

Thirdly, what this means is that the only two patterns of marriage to which the Bible does refer are heterosexual polygyny (one man with multiple wives) and heterosexual monogamy.

If we look at polygyny first of all, what we find is that there are no references to polygynous marriages in the New Testament. All the references to marriage in the New Testament, without exception, are references to the marriage of one man with one woman.

There is polygyny in the Old Testament. However, it is very rare. As Richard Davidson notes: ‘In the OT there are thirty-three reasonably clear historical cases of polygamy out of approximately three thousand men recorded in the scriptural record.’[3]

These rare cases of polygyny are almost entirely restricted to the period of the Patriarchs and to the judges and kings of pre-exilic Israel. There is only one instance of an ordinary Israelite being in a polygynous marriage (Elkanah in 1 Samuel 1:2).

Furthermore, when polygyny is referred to it is always referred to negatively.

  • It is something engaged in by people who have turned away from God, as in the cases of Gideon in Judges 8:30 and Solomon in 1 Kings 11:1-8. Conversely when people turn back to God, as in the case of Jacob and David, they also turn back to monogamy.
  • It something that is forbidden to both the people of Israel in general, and specifically to their kings, by God’s law in Leviticus 18:18 (where ‘sister’ means another woman rather than someone with the same parents) and Deuteronomy 17:17.
  • It is something that is depicted as leading to family conflict, as in the cases of the families of Jacob in Genesis 29:15-30: 24, Elkanah in 1 Samuel 1:3-8 and David in 1 Samuel 16 -1 Kings 2.
  • It has its origins after the fall. In Genesis 4:17-24 we have a genealogy of the descendants of Cain and in this genealogy the seventh and concluding figure in whom the descent into sin reaches its climax is Lamech, who is described not once, but three times, as having two wives (Genesis 4:18, 23a, 23b). In this account Lamech’s sinfulness is demonstrated not only by the fact that he is addicted to a life of violence and revenge, but that he has departed from the monogamous form of marriage established by God at creation (a point highlighted by the three references to his polygyny). [4]

If we ask how we know that monogamy has been established by God at creation, the answer is that we have been told this in the creation story in Genesis 2 which fills out what is said about God’s creation of human beings as male and female in Genesis 1:26-28. In Genesis 2 God creates the woman, Eve, as the suitable partner for the man, Adam, and brings them together (Genesis 2:18-23). The narrator then goes on to explain that by doing this God established a pattern for all subsequent marriages: ‘Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24).

What we have here is a normative pattern for marriage, upheld by Jesus himself in the Gospels (Matthew 19:3-6, Mark 10:2-9), that sees marriage as a freely chosen, permanent and exclusive sexual relationship that is between one man and one woman and is outside of the immediate family circle. Moreover, as Genesis goes on to make clear through the subsequent story of Adam and Eve (Genesis 4:1, 2, 25, 5:3), it is through marriage that the divine command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ in Genesis 1:28 is to find fulfilment.

The reason that the New Testament is silent about polygyny (as about polyandry and same-sex marriage) is that it holds that Christians are called to live with within the pattern of marriage thus established by God at creation and by so doing reflect the eternal marriage between Christ and his Church (Ephesians 5:21-33).

The answer to the question posed in Professor Percy’s article is thus that the Bible really does give us a clear definition of marriage. Marriage is what God says it is in Genesis 2. The Church of England is thus justified in saying that:

… marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.[5]

This statement reflects the teaching of Scripture and so for the Church of England to depart from it either by changing its theology or its practice would mean departing from what God has laid down, something which it is not authorised to do.

[1] Martyn Percy, ‘Does the Bible really…Give us a clear definition of marriage’ athttps://viamedia.news/2019/05/31/does-the-bible-really-give-us-a-clear-definition-of-marriage/.

[2] Michael Brown, Can you be Gay and Christian? (Lake Mary: Front Line, 2014) p. 87.

[3] Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh – Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), p. 210. In context what he means by ‘polygamy’ is specifically polygyny.

[4] For a detailed study of polygamy in the Old Testament with copious references to other studies see Davidson Chapter 5.

[5] Canon B.30 ‘Of Holy Matrimony.’

A response to Meg Warner ‘Does the Bible really say … that sex outside marriage is wrong?’

Dr Warner’s argument

In her article ‘Does the Bible really say… that sex outside marriage is wrong?’ posted on the Via Media. News website on 23 May 2019[1] Dr Meg Warner acknowledges that:

‘…. the overwhelming impression of the various biblical references and allusions to sex outside marriage is negative. Extra-marital sex tends to be viewed in biblical texts as ‘A Very Bad Thing’. One thinks, for example, of the professed view of Paul ‘that it is better to be married than to burn’ (1 Cor 7:9).’

However she then goes on to argue that:

‘In order to know whether, or how, the Bible’s references and allusions to extra marital sex ought to shape our conduct today, however, we need to look more closely.’

In order to take a closer look at the Bible’s teaching she turns to the laws on sexual conduct in Deuteronomy 22:13-29 which she says are the ‘foundation for biblical views on this subject.’ She summarises the contents of these verses as follows:

‘…. a single woman, living in the home of her father, should not have sex (so that she can present herself to her husband as a virgin – Deut 22:13-21), an engaged woman should not engage in consensual sex (Deut 22:23-29), and a married woman who has sex with someone other than her husband should die (Deut 22:22). Meanwhile, a man who has forced sex with a single woman will be required to pay a fee to her father, marry the girl and never divorce her (Deut 22:28-29), a man who has sex with an engaged woman should be put to death (Deut 22:23-27), and a man who has sex with another man’s wife should be put to death (Deut 22:22).’

While accepting that these provisions in Deuteronomy 22 ‘could be viewed as a code that forbids sex outside of marriage,’ Dr Warner cautions against the simple assumption that what is said in these verses ‘represents God’s will for us today.’

This is because underlying what is said in these verses is the idea of women as property. In Dr Warner’s words:

‘Women were, in a very real sense, regarded as the property of the men to whom they ‘belonged’ – usually their fathers or husbands. In general, a woman was valuable to the man to whom she belonged, unless she failed to marry, in which case she became a burden. Marriage was in part a financial transaction, in which a girl’s father looked to receive a ‘marriage gift’ or mohar from her suitor. A father owned not only his daughter, but also her sexuality, and virginity was considered essential to what a woman brought to her marriage.’

This fact, contends Dr Warner, should lead the Church to re-consider whether it should reject sex outside marriage for two reasons.

First, the ideas reflected in Deuteronomy 22 are now outdated:

‘We no longer, in the West, consider women to be the property of men, and while marriage may still be a family concern, it is no longer essentially a financial transaction. The principles set out in Deuteronomy 22 are no longer needed to ensure protection from shame and financial loss. Further, if we were all familiar with Deuteronomy 22, and understood the social values that it upheld, we would likely be appalled, and perhaps choose to boycott behavioural patterns based upon those social values, rather than to compel people to follow them.’

Secondly, these ideas:

‘…. are not clearly of themselves inherently biblical. The code in Deuteronomy adopts prevalent community standards and attitudes, and makes special rules and provisions for Israelites. Today’s prevalent community standards and attitudes are vastly different. The special rules and provisions put in place for ancient Israelites may not be helpful, and may even be harmful, in our context.’

Assessing this argument

What should we make of this argument? The answer is that we should reject it for two reasons.

First, there is nothing to suggest that what underlies the laws about sexual conduct in Deuteronomy 22:13-29 is a belief that a woman is the property of her father or her husband.

This is something that is not said anywhere in Deuteronomy 22 which means that the evidence for it has to lie somewhere else in the Old Testament. However, no such evidence exists. As Richard Davidson notes, the Old Testament nowhere suggests that women were regarded as property.

Elsewhere in the Ancient New East, because wives and daughters were regarded as a man’s property in the same way as his slaves or oxen, a ‘vicarious punishment’ could be imposed in which ‘a man was punished for a crime by having to give up his wife or daughter.’ In the Old Testament, by contrast, where women were not regarded as property ‘no such vicarious punishment is prescribed.’ In similar fashion, he says, because a wife was regarded as property, other Ancient Near Eastern law codes permit a husband to ‘whip his wife, pluck out her hair, mutilate her ears, or strike her, with impunity,’ whereas ‘no such permission is given to the husband in biblical law to punish his wife in any way.’[2]

As Davidson goes on to say:

‘Far from being regarded as ‘chattel,’ according to the fifth commandment of the Decalogue and repeated commands throughout the Pentateuchal code, the wife/mother was to be given equal honour within the family circle (Exod 20:12; 21:15, 17, Lev 20:9; Deut 21:18-21; 27:16).’[3]

If we ask why a wife or mother is to be given equal honour the answer given in the Old Testament in the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 is that it is because both women and men share the same humanity (Genesis 2:23) and as such have equal status as those created in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27). Eve is the equal human partner of Adam.

It is sometimes suggested that the tenth commandment of the Decalogue sees a wife as property alongside ‘his manservant, his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbour’s’ (Exodus 20:17). However, as John Otwell has pointed out, in fact the wife is not listed here as property, but simply as the first-named member of a household. This point is made clear in the parallel version of the commandment in Deuteronomy 5:21 where the wife is the subject of an entirely separate clause. [4]

As we have seen, Dr Warner argues that the Old Testament concept of the mohar paid by the bridegroom to the bride’s father (Genesis 34:12, Exodus 22:17, 1 Samuel 18:25) indicates that marriage was viewed as a ‘financial transaction’ in which the husband purchased his wife from her father. However, as Roland De Vaux explains, this is not the case:

‘This obligation to pay a sum of money, or its equivalent, to the girl’s family obviously gives the Israelite marriage the outward appearance of a purchase. But the mohar seems not to be so much the price paid for the woman as a compensation given to the family, and, in spite of the apparent resemblance, in law this is a different consideration. The future husband thereby acquires a right over the woman, but the woman herself is not bought and sold.’[5]

The reason compensation would be payable would be that a woman’s labour would have economic value for her family and the loss of this would need to be made good. It would be paid to her father as the representative of her family and not because he owned her.

It should also be noted that it appears that the mohar was held in trust with any added value belonging to the father and the family he represented, but with the capital reverting to the daughter on his death, or if she was reduced to poverty by the death of her husband. This explains the complaint by Rachel and Leah in Genesis 31:15 that Laban ‘has been using up the money given for us.’ [6] This too makes it clear that the mohar was not a payment to his father for his property.

Secondly, Dr Warner is mistaken when she declares that the case law in Deuteronomy 22 is ‘the foundation for biblical views on this subject.’

If what she means by this is that historically this was the first piece of biblical writing on the subject of sexual misconduct that then led to all the others then there appears to be no evidence that this the case (and none is offered by Dr Warner).

If what she means that within the Canon of Scripture this chapter is the definitive explanation of why sex outside marriage is to be rejected then she is equally wrong. In the biblical Canon the laws in Deuteronomy 22:13-29 are an amplification of the seventh commandment (‘You shall not commit adultery’) as recorded in Exodus 20:14 and Deuteronomy 5:18) which in turn reflects God’s creation of marriage as a sexually exclusive relationship between one man and one woman in Genesis 2:24. Furthermore, if we move to the New Testament St Paul tells us that the marital relationship established in Genesis 2:24 is itself based on something more fundamental, namely the eternal relationship between Christ and his Church to which human marriage points (Ephesians 5:32).

Why are the various forms of sexual conduct described in Deuteronomy 22:13-29 wrong? Because they are all forms of sex outside marriage which are all covered by the general prohibition of adultery in the Decalogue. Why does the Decalogue prohibit adultery? Because God established marriage as an exclusive sexual relationship pointing to the exclusive and permanent relationship between Christ and his people.

What all this in turn means is that the biblical rejection of all forms of sex outside marriage, like the biblical insistence on the equal dignity of men and women, is not, as Dr Warner suggests, simply a reflection of cultural attitudes commonly held across the ancient world. Instead it is based on a view of God’s creation of the world and of God’s relationship with his people that is unique to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.

A final point made by Dr Warner that we need to consider is her claim that:

‘… both Exodus and Deuteronomy make provision for the family of a single woman who is sexually assaulted to be married off to her assailant. At the time of writing these provisions functioned pastorally. Today, in the West at least, they would be considered abusive.’

The texts she is referring to are Exodus 22:16-17 and Deuteronomy 22:28-29 and the problem with her reading of them is twofold. First, Exodus 22:16 talks about ‘seduction’ not assault and the specific Hebrew word tapas used to describe the sexual activity in Deuteronomy 22:28 plus its statement that ‘they’ (and not just ‘he’) are caught in the act likewise seem to indicate ‘that the woman had acquiesced and was a willing partner in the sexual encounter.’ [7] Secondly, it is not a case of the woman alone being ‘married off.’ Both the man and the woman have to marry. What the texts imply is that if an unmarried couple decide to have sex then they have to accept the consequences of their action (except in the case where the man is completely unsuitable for some reason in which case the girl’s father has the right to forbid the marriage –Exodus 22:17).

Conclusion

What we have seen is that Dr Warner’s argument is misleading in several respects.

  • It is not the case that Deuteronomy 22:13-29 is the foundation for the biblical rejection of sex outside marriage:
  • It is not the case that what is said in depends on the idea that a woman ids the property of her father or her husband;
  • It is not the case that these verses simply echo the ideas of the surrounding culture;
  • It is not the case that Exodus 22:16-17 and Deuteronomy 22:28-29 are about a woman being married off to someone who has sexually assaulted her.

In addition Dr Warner has failed to acknowledge the way in which the actual foundation for biblical thinking about sexual ethics is the creation narrative in Geneses 1 and 2 and what St Paul says in Ephesians 5:32 about marriage being a reflection of Christ’s relationship with his Church.

For all these reasons her article does not make out a persuasive case for the Church to reconsider its traditional view that faithful Christian discipleship requires sexual abstinence outside marriage and sexual fidelity within it.

This does not mean that Christians today need to adopt the specific laws laid down in Deuteronomy 22. As Article VI says, is it not the case that the ‘civil precepts’ contained in the Old Testament ‘ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth.’ What it does means, as Oliver O’Donovan writes, is that as Christians we need to learn to see within this law (as within the Old Testament law as a whole) ‘a revelation of created order and the good to which all men are called, a ‘moral law’ by which every human being is claimed and which belongs fundamentally to men’s welfare.’ [8]

[1] Dr Meg Warner, ‘Does the Bible really say… that sex outside marriage is wrong?’ athttps://viamedia.news/2019/05/23/does-the-bible-really-say-that-sex-outside-marriage-is-wrong/

[2] Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh – Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), p.250.

[3] Davidson, p. 250.

[4] John Otwell, And Sarah Laughed: The Status of Women in the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977), p.76.

[5] Roland De Vaux, Ancient Israel – Its life and Institutions (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1988), p.27.

[6] De Vaux, p.27.

[7] Davidson, p. 359, Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1992) p.286, and Katie McCoy, ‘Did Old Testament Law Force a Woman to Marry Her Rapist?’ at https://cbmw.org/topics/sex/did-old-testament-law-force-a-woman-to-marry-her-rapist/.

[8] Oliver O’Donovan, On the Thirty Nine Articles (Exeter: Paternoster, 1986). p.64.