What should Anglicans make of the new Methodist report on marriage and relationships?

The report of the Methodist Church’s Marriage and Relationships Task Group.

On February 26 the United Methodist Church, the world’s largest Methodist denomination, with approximately 12.5 million members, voted to continue to uphold the belief that ‘the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,’ and to continue to prohibit both same-sex marriage and the ordination of those in sexually active same-sex relationships.[1]

By contrast, the comparatively tiny Methodist Church of Great Britain (c.188, 000 members) seems to be moving towards a very radical departure from the traditional Christian understanding of marriage and human sexuality and in favour of a total acceptance of both same-sex relationships and other extra-marital sexual relationships as well.

As the outcome of a process which started back in 2014, the church’s ‘Marriage and Relationships Task Group’ is presenting a report entitled God in Love Unites Us to the Methodist Conference in July. The recommendations of this report are as follows (the bold is in the original):

‘That the Conference receives the Report and commends it to the Connexion for study and prayerful discussion.

The Conference adopts the recommendation that it affirm the following summary understanding of the principles or qualities of good relating:

All significant relationships should be built on self-giving love, commitment, fidelity, loyalty, honesty, mutual respect, equality and the desire for the mutual flourishing of the people involved.

  • It is through that self-giving, rather than through self-seeking, that the self flourishes and begins to experience life in all its fullness (though it needs to be recognised that the universal Church’s historic emphasis on self-sacrifice has often been misunderstood and misused [eg by abusive partners] in a way that is destructive of the wellbeing of the ones abused [often women]).

The Conference adopts the recommendation that it affirm the following summary understanding of cohabitation:

  • The Church recognises that the love of God is present within the love of human beings who are drawn to each other, and who enter freely into some form of life-enhancing committed relationship with each other, whether that be through informal cohabitation or a more formal commitment entered into publicly.
  • As a Church we wish to celebrate that the love of God is present in these circumstances, even if that grace is not responded to or even discerned by the people concerned.
  • The Church has an important calling, therefore, to point to the presence of God’s love within such relationships, and to encourage people to respond to it in the renewing and deepening (by whatever means) of their commitment.

The Conference directs that the Methodist Council, in consultation with the Faith and Order Committee, ensure resources be produced for the celebration of civil partnerships.

The Conference directs the Faith and Order Committee to explore producing liturgical resources and relevant guidance for use at the ending of a marriage.

The Conference adopts the recommendation that the Methodist Church offer more support for marriage, alongside other committed relationships; and directs that the Methodist Council ensure resources be produced to help provide this support drawing on the theological insights of the purposes, qualities and patterns for good relating set out in the report.

The Conference adopts the Guidance on the Understanding of Marriage and directs that it be included in the Guidance section of CPD.

G1       The Methodist Church welcomes everyone, whether or not a member, who enquires about an intended marriage in any of its places of worship. It looks for an openness to God in them, not necessarily a developed understanding of the Christian faith.

G2       Legally, marriage is a contractual relationship entered into by two people who make solemn vows and commitments to each other, without either the nature of the marriage or the nature of the commitments being further defined under the law of the land. In the understanding of the Methodist Church, marriage encompasses that but is also deeper and richer. The Methodist Church believes that marriage is a covenant relationship between two people, within God’s covenant of love with them. Through it, they may experience, explore and express God’s gracious love.

G3       The Methodist Church believes that marriage is an exclusive relationship, freely entered into with a life-long intention of uniting two people in body, heart, mind and soul in ways that are appropriate to each partner. In it, God’s Spirit enables both partners to know the security of love and care, bringing to each other comfort and companionship, enrichment and encouragement, tenderness and trust. Through such marriage children may be nurtured, family life strengthened, and human society enriched.

G4       The Methodist Church recognises that amongst its members different views are held about the interpretation of the Bible and Christian tradition as to whether those being married may be any two people, or may only be a woman and a man. The Methodist Church has decided to respect and make practical provisions for both positions.

G5 A marriage service or a service of blessing of a marriage that has been previously solemnised may only be conducted in a Methodist place of worship when it can be shown that the requirements of the legislation in the appropriate jurisdiction have been met.

G6 Where there is a desire to use places of worship for marriage services or for services of blessing for a marriage previously solemnised, the managing trustees of those premises should actively consider whether they wish to do so solely for marriages of mixed-sex couples, or for marriages of same-sex couples as well as mixed-sex couples. The managing trustees should re-consider the question of the use of the place of worship for such services every five years or sooner.

G7   Where the managing trustees wish to use a place of worship for marriage services, and the legislation of the relevant jurisdiction requires church buildings or personnel to be registered or authorised for the solemnisation of marriages, the managing trustees should take the relevant steps to comply.

For the purposes of section 26A of the Marriage Act 1949 (as inserted by section 4(1) of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013) the Conference consents to the marriage of same sex couples and accordingly authorises the managing trustees or, if none, the trustees, of any Methodist building in England and Wales capable of registration under section 43A of the Marriage Act 1949 (as amended by paragraph 1 of Schedule 1 to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013) to register that building under that section. ‘[2]

The report also recommends that Methodist ministers and churches who are conscientiously unwilling to marry same-sex couples should have a duty to refer them to the minister of a Methodist Church (preferably within the same Methodist circuit) that is registered for same-sex marriages. [3]

The theology underlying the report.

The three main points in these recommendations are:

  1. That all forms of sexual relationship can have equal value regardless of whether they take place within marriage or not.
  2. That sexual relationships have no necessary relationship to procreation.
  3. That marriage should be open to both opposite sex and same-sex couples.

The theological underpinning for these three points are set out in three key paragraphs in the Task Group’s report.

Paragraph 2.4.7, which is concerned with relationships and sexuality in general, states that what matters is the quality of a relationship rather than the form of sexual activity involved and whether or not it leads to procreation:

‘To bring together and summarise some of the points we have been making, sexuality and sexual intimacy are part of God’s gracious ordering of things, and are also capable of being affected by our sinfulness. What matters is whether we use them for God, and for God’s purposes, or for our own selfish ends. This moves the emphasis, from a Christian perspective, from a narrow concern with particular sexual acts or focus on the outcome of sex in procreation, to a wider recognition that sexual intimacy is an important element in the way that couples relate to each other; that the ways in which that intimacy is expressed can vary greatly (and may or may not include sexual intercourse); and that sexual expression is best directed towards enhancing the relationship between a committed couple and thus enabling their good relating to one another. Then in turn the couple can offer a stronger contribution to community and the care of creation, thus fulfilling God’s good purposes for relating.’

Paragraphs 4.3.19-20 then go on to argue that because Methodism has developed a ‘companionate’ view of marriage in which what matters is the loving support a couple can give to one another rather than having children it should now go on to permit same-sex marriages.

‘The Task Group believes that the ‘companionship’ model of marriage that the Methodist Church has developed over the years in terms of mixed-sex relationships, applies, theologically and practically, just as well to the same-sex marriages that are now permitted by the law of the land in most parts of the United Kingdom. The purposes, qualities and practices of marriage relationships that we have identified in this report as enabling those relationships to flourish can be applied to same-sex committed loving relationships as well as to mixed-sex relationships.

Consequently, we believe that, in awe and humility, the Methodist Church needs to recognise that it is being called by God to take the next steps in the development of its understanding of relationships and marriage. Those steps include enabling people of the same sex to commit themselves to each other in Christian marriage services. There is a strong case that, if marriage is what the Methodist Church says it is, and is as wonderful as it says it is, this Church cannot remain true to the God of justice and love by continuing to deny it to those same-sex couples who desire it so deeply.’

What will happen to the report?

According to the Methodist media briefing, the report will come to Conference this year. If it is approved it will go out for consultation to the Methodist district Synods in Spring next year before returning for a final vote at the 2020 Conference.

What should Anglicans make of this report?

First, they should acknowledge that there are things said in the report which are correct:

  • All significant relationships should be built on self-giving love, commitment, fidelity, loyalty, honesty, mutual respect, equality and the desire for the mutual flourishing of the people involved.
  • Human beings flourish best through self-giving rather than self-seeking;
  • Sexuality and sexual intimacy are part of God’s gracious ordering of things, but are capable of being affected by our sinfulness;
  • Sexual intimacy can take various forms;
  • Sexual intimacy should be used to strengthen the relationship between a committed couple;
  • Procreation is not the sole end of marriage and each individual act of sexual intimacy does not need to have procreation as its purpose.

Secondly, however, they should also note that there are a number of central parts of the teaching of the Bible and the orthodox Christian tradition concerning sexuality and marriage that the report rejects or underplays:

  • God has created his human creatures as male and female and given them a command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:26-28, Matthew 19:4).
  • God has ordained marriage as a permanent and exclusive relationship between one man and one woman, as the sole legitimate context for sexual intercourse, and as the appointed means for the procreation of children (Genesis 2:24, Genesis 4:1).
  • It is the form of marriage that God has ordained that bears witness to the love between God and his people in this world and to the eternal relationship between God and his people in the world to come (Hosea, Ephesians 5:21-32, Revelation 19:7).
  • All forms of sexual activity outside of marriage, including same-sex relationships, are types of sexual activity that are contrary to God’s will for his people and exclude people from his kingdom (Leviticus 18:1-30, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
  • A sexual ethic involving sexual abstinence outside marriage and sexual faithfulness within it is an integral part of Christian discipleship (Matthew 5:27-30, Ephesians 5:3-14, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8).
  • Furthermore, because marriage is something created by God and not be human beings it is not something that human beings can change. What marriage is, is what God has ordained it to be. Consequently, the act of the British parliament in establishing same-sex marriage in 2013 has no validity from a Christian perspective.
  • God is a God of justice and love, but we reflect his justice and embody his love by living according to his will ourselves and encouraging others to the same. To love God is to obey his just commands (John 14:15, 15:9-10). [4]

Overall, there are three big issues that lie behind the specific weaknesses in the Methodist report.

First, the report takes a generic, ‘one size fits all,’ view of human relationships that fails to recognize, as the Bible and Christian tradition  do, that there are many different forms  of relationship that call for different kinds of behaviour, including different kinds of sexual conduct.

Secondly, the report fails to take seriously the huge amount of scholarship undertaken over the past sixty years that shows that the traditional pattern of Christian sexual ethics is the one that best reflects the teaching of Scripture.

Thirdly, report fails to recognize that what God has laid down is for our good and that the abandonment of traditional Christian patterns of marriage and family life from the 1960s onwards has caused enormous damage, particularly to the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. This last point means that the report fails to reflect the traditional Methodist concern for social justice and the welfare of the poor.

Because these things are so, the claim in the Methodist report that God is calling the Methodist Church to affirm sexual relationships outside marriage and marriage between two people of the same sex must be wrong. It also has no support from the teaching of John Wesley who held an entirely biblical and orthodox view of sexual ethics.

What the report is actually calling for is for Methodists to turn away from God’s truth in their theology and to act in a way that is not in accordance with God’s will in their practice.

How should Anglicans respond to this report?

Anglicans should respond to this report in there ways.

First, they should pray for their Methodist brothers and sisters who are being so misled.

Secondly, they should provide any assistance they can to faithful Methodists (such as those in the Methodist Evangelicals Together group)[5] to prevent this report being approved by the Methodist Conference either this year or next.

Thirdly, the Church of England’s Council for Christian Unity, and its representative at the Methodist Conference, should make it clear to the Methodists that the report contravenes the Anglican-Methodist Covenant of 2001 (I say this as someone who helped to draw up the Covenant). The Covenant is based on the two churches having ‘full agreement in the apostolic faith’[6] and if this report is accepted by the Methodist Conference this will no longer be the case.

If the report is accepted and implemented:

The Church of England should formally announce that the Anglican-Methodist Covenant has ceased to be in effect and withdraw from all activity related to the implementation of the Covenant.

Only those Methodist ministers who are prepared to disassociate themselves from the Methodist decision should be allowed to minister in Church of England churches under the terms of the ecumenical Canons B43 and 44.

Ways should be sought to sever the links between Anglican-Methodist Local Ecumenical Partnerships and the Methodist Conference. Such LEPs could not be registered to celebrate same-sex weddings because this would be against Church of England policy, but differentiation would still be required as a form of public witness against the Methodist decision.

M B Davie 15.5.19

[1] ‘2019 General Conference Passes Traditional Plan’ at https://www.umnews.org/en/news/gc2019-daily-feb 26.

[2] ‘Marriage and Relationship 2019 – media briefing’ at https://www.methodist.org.uk/about-us/the-methodist-church/marriage-and-relationships-2019/marriage-and-relationships-2019-media-briefing/.

[3] God in love unites us, para 5.3.8. at conf-2019-10-marriage-and-relationships-task-group-2019.pff.

[4] For a more detailed explanation of these points see Martin Davie, Glorify God in your body (London: CEEC, 2019) and S Donald Fortson III and Rollin G Grams, Unchanging Witness (Nashville: B&H Academic 2016).

[5] Methodist Evangelicals Together at https://www.methodistevangelicals.org.uk/.

[6] An Anglican Methodist Covenant, (Peterborough and London: Methodist Publishing House/Church HousePublishing, 2001), p.60.



Anglicans and the double procession of the Holy Spirit.

The traditional Anglican acceptance of the double procession

There can be no doubt that the Anglican tradition has historically affirmed what is known as the ‘double procession’ of the Holy Spirit. That it is to say, it has held that the Holy Spirit proceeds not only ‘from the Father,’ but ‘from the Father and the Son.’

The second Council of the English church, the Council of Hatfield held in 680, produced a confession of faith which affirmed the double procession. This confession declares:

‘…we glorify God the Father, who is without beginning, and His only-begotten Son, begotten of the Father before all worlds, and the Holy Spirit ineffably proceeding from the Father and the Son, as proclaimed by all the holy Apostles, prophets, and teachers whom we have already mentioned.’ [1]

The language of this confession of faith echoes the Western version of the Nicene Creed which declares that the Holy Spirit ‘proeedeth from the Father and the Son’ and it is this version of the Nicene Creed which the Church of England has traditionally used.

In addition, the Church of England has traditionally also used the Athanasian Creed, verse 23 of which declares that the Holy Spirit ‘is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.’ In this verse ‘of’ and ‘proceeding’ have the same meaning. What the Athanasian Creed is saying, in line with the Western version of the Nicene Creed, is that the Holy Spirit proceeds ‘of’ (i.e. from) both the Father and the Son.

At the Reformation, the Church of England continued to use the Western version of the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed. It also re-affirmed its belief in the double procession in Article V of the Thirty Nine Articles, which talks about ‘The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son’ and in the Homily ‘Concerning the coming down of the Holy Ghost and the manifold gifts of the same’ in the Second Book of Homilies, which states that ‘The Holy Ghost is a spiritual and divine substance, distinct from the Father and the Son, and yet proceeding from them both.’[2]

When the churches of what was to become the Anglican Communion began to come into existence from the sixteenth century onwards as a result of a combination of colonisation and missionary endeavour they followed the lead of the Church of England by accepting the double procession of the Holy Spirit. The Church of Ireland and the Scottish Episcopal Church stand outside this historical pattern of colonisation and missionary endeavour, but as part of the Western Christian tradition they too have historically accepted the double procession.

Proposals to change this tradition

While the Western Christian tradition has affirmed the double procession of the Holy Spirit, the Orthodox churches of the East have adhered to the position set forth in the original text of the Nicene Creed which says that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds from the Father’ without mentioning procession from the Son.

In the second half of the twentieth century Anglicans have begun to move away from an acceptance of the double procession towards an acceptance of the Orthodox position instead.

For example, in the Moscow Agreed Statement produced by the Anglican-Orthodox Joint Doctrinal Commission in 1976 the Anglican members of the Commission agreed that the words ‘and the Son’ should not be included in the Nicene Creed. [3]

Following on from this statement, the 1978 Lambeth Conference and the Anglican Consultative Council in 1979 both passed resolutions recommending that Anglican churches should consider omitting ‘and the Son’ from the Nicene Creed.[4]

The 1988 Lambeth Conference also passed a resolution asking that further thought be given to the matter and recommending that in future Anglican liturgical revision the words ‘and the Son’ should be omitted from the text of the Nicene Creed.[5]

Most recently, in the agreed statement The Procession and work of the Holy Spirit issued by the Anglican – Oriental Orthodox International Commission in 2017 the Anglican members once again took the Orthodox position, agreeing that the words ‘and the Son’ were ‘an interpolation, irregularly put in the text of the Creed and devoid of any canonical authorization.’ [6]

What are to make of this change of position?

The proper Anglican starting point for considering what we should say about the procession of the Holy Spirit has to be the teaching of Holy Scripture for the simple reason that in Holy Scripture we have God’s own account, given through the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:21) of what He is like. This account has to take priority over any purely human formulation.

If we therefore turn to Scripture we find that doctrine of the double procession has a solid biblical foundation. This point is very well made by the nineteenth century Church of England theologian Harold Browne in his comments on Article V of the Thirty Nine Articles.

Browne notes that apart from the explicit statement in John 15:26 that ‘the Spirit of truth… proceeds from the Father’:

‘…our principal reasons for concluding that the Spirit of God proceeds from the Father are these: viz: that He is called the Spirit of the Father; that as the Father sends the Son, who is begotten of Him, so he sends the Spirit; and that He sends him especially in that manner, which in Scripture is called inspiring or breathing forth. From all this we conclude that, like as the Son is begotten, so the Spirit proceedeth of the Father.’ [7]

However, he says, ‘the Scriptures set forth the relation of the Spirit to the Son, in all these respects, in the very same language, in which they set forth the relation of the Spirit to the Father.’[8] He puts forward the evidence for this claim in two parts:

  1. ‘Is He [the Spirit] called ‘the Spirit of God, ‘the Spirit of the Father,’ ‘The Spirit of Him who raised up Jesus? ’ In like manner He is called ‘the Spirit of Christ,’ ‘the Spirit of the Son,’ ‘the Spirit of Jesus Christ.’ Thus we read, Romans 8:9, ‘If any man hath not the Spirit of Christ;’ where it is evident the Apostle means the Holy Spirit of God spoken in the previous sentence. Galatians 4:6, ‘God hath sent forth the Spirit of His Son.’ Philippians 1:19, ‘The supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.’ 1 Peter 1:1, ‘The Spirit of Christ,’ which was in the prophets.’[9]
  2. ‘But again, do we infer, that the Spirit proceedeth from the Father, because He is sent by the Father, and is breathed forth into the prophets by the Father? Still, in like manner, we read that the same Spirit is sent by the Son, and was by Him breathed upon His Apostles. Thus he says himself, John 15:26, ‘The Comforter, whom I will send you from the Father.’ John 16:7, ‘If I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send Him unto you.’ And in John 10:22, after He had risen from the dead, ‘He breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost.’’ [10]

The fact that exactly the same language is used to describe the relation of the Spirit to the Son as is used to describe his relation to the Father means, concludes Browne, ‘that as the Spirit proceedeth from the Father, so He proceeds from the Son.’[11] He quotes the words of St. Augustine:

‘Neither can we say that the Holy Spirit does not also proceed from the Son, for the same Spirit is not without reason said to be the Spirit both of the Father and of the Son. Nor do I see what else He intended to signify, when He breathed on the face of the disciples and said ‘Receive ye the Holy Ghost’ For that bodily breathing, proceeding from the body with the feeling of bodily touching, was not the substance of the Holy Spirit, but a declaration by a fitting sign, that the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father, but from the Son.’[12]

The traditional Orthodox response to this biblical evidence for the double procession is that it refers to the sending of the Spirit by the Son in this world and does not tell us anything about the eternal relationship between the Son and the Spirit within the life of the Trinity. As the Anglican-Oriental Orthodox statement puts it:

‘We distinguish between the two levels: Theologia (θεολογία) which refers to the essence (οὐσία) of God and the intra-trinitarian relationships, and Economia (οἰκονομία), which refers tothe activities (ἐνέργεια) of God and his relation to the world. Consequently, we distinguish the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father alone, and the sending of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, from the Father, through the Son.’ [13]

There are two problems with this Orthodox response.

First, from an Orthodox standpoint it either proves too much or too little. This is because the Orthodox still want to say that the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father within the life of God, but the very biblical passages that can be used to support this idea (such as John 15:26) also refer to God’s activity in this world. If we cannot read back from God’s activity in the world into the eternal life of God then we cannot rightly say with the Orthodox that the Spirit proceeds from the Father. On the other hand, if we can read back from God’s activity in the world into the life of God then why do we rule out the biblical evidence that says that the Spirit also proceeds from the Son?

Secondly, as Karl Barth argues in the Church Dogmatics, it is in any case illegitimate to make a separation from how God reveals himself in the world and how he is in himself. In Barth’s words:

‘The reality of God in His revelation cannot be bracketed by an ‘only’ as though somewhere behind His revelation there stood another reality of God: the reality of God which encounters us in His revelation is His reality in all the depths of eternity. This is why we have to take it so seriously precisely in His revelation. In connexion with the specific doctrine of the Holy Spirit this means that He is the Spirit of the Father and the Son not just in his work ad extra and upon us, but that to all eternity – no limit or reservation is possible here – He is none other than the Spirit of the Father and the Son. ‘And the Son’ means that not only for us, but in God Himself, there is no possibility of an opening and readiness and capacity for God in man – for this is the work of the Holy Spirit in revelation – unless it comes from Him, the Father, who has revealed Himself in His Word, in Jesus Christ, and also, and no less necessarily from Him who is His Word, from Jesus Christ who reveals the Father. Jesus Christ as the Giver of the Holy Spirit is not without the Father from whom He, Jesus Christ, is. But the Father as the Giver of the Holy Spirit is also not without Jesus Christ to whom He Himself is the Father, The Eastern doctrine does not contest the fact that it is so in revelation. But is does not read off from revelation its statement about the being of God ‘antecedently in Himself.’ It does not stand by the order of the divine modes of being which by its own admission is valid in the sphere of revelation.’ [14]

As Barth goes on to ask:

‘What gives us the right to take passages like John 15:26, which speak of the procession of the Father, and isolate them from many others which equally plainly call Him the Spirit of the Son? Is it not much more natural to understand opposing statements like this as mutually complementary, as is freely done in the reality of revelation, and then to acknowledge the reality disclosed thereby as valid to all eternity, as the way it is in the essence of God Himself?‘ [15]

A further Orthodox objection, which is reflected in the words of the Anglican-Oriental Orthodox Statement about the words ‘and the Son’ being ‘an interpolation, irregularly put in the text of the Creed and devoid of any canonical authorization’ is to say that it is wrong in principle to add to the original text of the Nicene Creed.

How should we respond to this objection?

First, it is true that the original form of the Nicene Creed did not contain the words ‘and the Son.’ However, the original Creed of Nicaea of 325 did not contain most of the material about the Holy Spirit that is contained in the Nicene Creed itself and yet this material is accepted and recited by churches in both East and West along with the other additions to the Creed of Nicaea contained in the Nicene Creed. It follows that it is difficult to consistently maintain that additions to existing creedal material are wrong in principle.

Secondly, although it is true that the words ‘and the Son’ were introduced into the Creed: ‘without the authority of an Ecumenical Council and without due regard for Catholic consent,’[16] this is also true of the additions made to the original Creed of Nicaea by the Nicene Creed. Research on the origins of the Nicene Creed indicates that it was a local adaptation of the Creed of Nicaea that was adopted by the First Council of Constantinople in 381 and then formally endorsed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. It follows that if the local adaptations of the Creed of Nicaea contained in the Nicene Creed could be granted retrospective endorsement there is no reason in principle why the same should not be true of the addition of the words ‘and the Son.’

Thirdly, as Article VIII of Thirty Nine Articles says, the important thing about the Creeds is that they are accurate summaries of the teaching of Scripture and this means that if an addition to the Creed makes it a better summary of Scripture (as is the case with the addition of the words ‘and the Son’ then there is a good case for adopting it whatever its provenance might be.

For all the reasons given in this section, it follows that Anglicans have been wrong to change their traditional position with regard to the double procession. Scripture clearly teaches the double procession of the Holy Spirit from both the Father and the Son and Anglicans have therefore been right to say so and to recite the Nicene Creed in its expanded Western form.

Because they have been wrong to change their position they should seek to change it back by revoking the relevant resolutions of the Lambeth Conference and the Anglican Consultative Council. They should also reject the Anglican-Oriental Orthodox agreed statement on the matter. This statement is now before the churches of both traditions ‘for study, response and reception’[17] and for the reasons set out in this study the Anglican response needs to be that it should not be received.

Is there a better way forward for Anglicans and the Orthodox on this issue?

What has been said so far might seem to suggest that there is no way forward between Anglicans and the Orthodox on the issue of the double procession of the Spirit. However, this not the case.

One helpful way forward, that was proposed as far back as the Council of Florence in 1439, and which has been gaining ground again in recent years, is to say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son.

The idea that the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son is one that has ancient roots. It can be found, for example, in the teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century. In his work On the Holy Spirit he compares the procession of the Spirit to the lighting of three torches:

‘It is as if a man were to see a separate flame burning on three torches (and we will suppose that the third flame is caused by the first being transmitted to the middle, and then kindling the end torch)…’[18]

As Tom Smail notes, what St. Gregory is saying in this quotation is that: ‘The Spirit has his being from the Father, although he receives that being not directly and immediately but through the Son.’[19] This is also the basic point that is made by St. Augustine in what he says about the double procession in Book XV of this work Of the Trinity.

Augustine writes

‘… as the Father has in Himself that the Holy Spirit should proceed from Him, so has He given to the Son that the same Holy Spirit should proceed from Him, and be both apart from time: and that the Holy Spirit is so said to proceed from the Father as that it be understood that His proceeding also from the Son, is a property derived by the Son from the Father. For if the Son has of the Father whatever He has, then certainly he has of the Father, that the Holy Spirit proceeds also from Him.’ [20]

and again:

‘…the Son is born of the Father; and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father principally, the Father giving the procession without any interval of time, yet in common from both [Father and Son]. ‘[21]

Both St. Augustine and St. Gregory hold that the principal source of the Holy Spirit is the Father, but that He also has His being from the Son to whom the deity possessed by the Father has also been given. Given that, the teaching of St. Augustine lies at the root of the Western doctrine of the double procession, the agreement between his teaching and that of St. Gregory is highly significant. What it means is that in Fathers from both East (Gregory) and West (Augustine) we can find an agreement that takes us beyond the apparent impasse between the doctrines of the single and double processions of the Spirit.

What it means is that we can say with both Scripture, and the Eastern tradition in which Orthodoxy stands, that the Father is the fount of deity, the one from whom the Son and the Spirit eternally have their being. Therefore we have to say that the Spirit is the Spirit of the Father who proceeds from the Father.

It also means that we can say with both Scripture, and the Western tradition of which Anglicanism is a part, that the Spirit does not have His being apart from the Son, but eternally has his being from the Father through the Son. Therefore we have to say that the Spirit is the Spirit of the Son who proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father.

In terms of the Nicene Creed what this means is that Western churches need to recognise that it is legitimate to say that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds from the Father’ providing this is understood to mean that the Father is the ultimate source of the Spirit and does not preclude the idea that the Spirit proceeds from the Father but through the Son. It also means that Orthodox churches need to correspondingly recognise that it is legitimate to say that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds from the Father and the Son’ as long as it is recognised that ‘from’ has to be understood in the sense of ‘from the Father through the Son’ and not as meaning that the Son is a separate and distinct source of the Spirit’s being alongside the Father.

In his commentary on Article V, Edgar Gibson draws attention to the fact that at the Council of Alexandria in the fourth Century it was accepted that the different terminologies used by Eastern and Western Christians to describe the persons of the Trinity were both legitimate. He suggests that given the kind of basic theological agreement about the procession of the Holy Spirit described above this provides a model for handling the differences over the inclusion or exclusion of the words ‘and the Son’ in the Nicene Creed.

‘There was a difference of phraseology between different portions of the Church as regards an important matter of faith. But so soon as it was discovered that, in spite of varying language, the meaning of both parties was identical, it was felt that a difference of phraseology was, after all, but a minor inconvenience, which might well be endured without causing any schism in the Church, and it was agreed that both parties might keep to their own traditional mode of expressing the doctrine which they held in common. So also, if Greeks and Latins are really at one in the doctrine, it is possible to look forward to the day when similar wise counsels may prevail, and the acceptance of the [Nicene] Constantinoplian Creed, either with or without the Filioque,[22] may be admitted as a basis for intercommunion between the long estranged branches of the Church in the East and West.’ [23]

What Anglicans need to be working for is this kind of ecumenical agreement.

M B Davie 7.5.19

[1] Bede, A History of the English Church and People, Bk IV.17, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), p. 236.

[2] Ian Robinson (ed), The Homilies, (Bishopstone: Brynmill/Preservation Press, 2006), p.330).

[3] Anglican Orthodox Dialogue – The Moscow Agreed Statement (London: SPCK 1977). p.88.

[4] Lambeth Conference 1978, Resolution 35, in Roger Coleman (ed), Resolutions of the twelve Lambeth Conferences 1867-1988 (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1992), p.192. Anglican Consultative Council 1979,

Resolution 3, at https://www.anglicancommunion.org/structures/instruments-of-communion/acc/acc-4/resolutions.aspx#s3.

[5] Lambeth Conference 1988, Resolution 6, in Coleman p.201.

[6] Anglican-Oriental Orthodox International Commission, The Procession and Work of the Holy Spirit, 2017, p.5,at https://www.anglicancommunion.org/media/312561/the-procession-and-work-of-the-holy-spirit-dublin- agreed-statement.pdf.

[7] E. Harold Browne, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: John Parker:1860), p.119.

[8] Browne, p.119.

[9] Browne, p.118.

[10] Browne, p.119

[11] Browne, p.119

[12] Browne, p.119 quoting St. Augustine, Of the Trinity, Bk.IV:20.

[13] The Procession and Work of the Holy Spirit, p.5.

[14] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/I (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2004), pp.479-480.

[15] Barth, p.480.

[16] The Moscow Agreed Statement, p.88.

[17] ‘The Procession and work of the Holy Spirit’ at  https://www.anglicancommunion.org/ecumenism/ecumenical-dialogues/oriental-orthodox.aspx

[18] Gregory of Nyssa On the Holy Spirit in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers 2nd series vol. V (Edinburgh & Grand Rapids: T&T Clark / Eerdmans 1994), p.317.

[19] Tom Smail The Giving Gift (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1988), p.128.

[20] Augustine On The Trinity XV:47 in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers vol. III (Edinburgh & Grand Rapids: T&T Clark/Eerdmans), p.225.

[21] Augustine, p.225.

[22] The words ‘and the Son’ in Latin ‘filioque.’

[23] Edgar Gibson, The Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England (London: Methuen, 1902), pp.228-229

Why the argument for equal marriage undermines itself.

Introduction – the campaign for equal marriage

Last week a new campaign was launched in the Church of England to ‘enable same-gender couples to be married in Church of England parishes.’ The name of this campaign is ‘Equal’ and it describes itself as ‘The campaign for equal marriage in the Church of England.’[1]

The use of the term ‘equal marriage’ by this campaign is not a novelty. It is in fact merely echoing the language used by those who successfully campaigned for the introduction of civil same-sex marriage in England, Wales and Scotland and who are currently campaigning for its introduction in Northern Ireland.

The use of the term ‘equal marriage’ by both secular and religious campaigners for same-sex marriage reflects the force that arguments based on the principle of equality have in British society and across the Western world as a whole. The implicit argument evoked by the use of the word ‘equal’ by campaigners for same-sex marriage runs as follows:

  • Major premise – the principle of equality, enshrined in British law by the Equality Act of 2010, is a basic moral principle which all right thinking people should accept;
  • Minor premise – same-sex marriage is an example of equality;
  • Conclusion – same-sex marriage should be accepted by all right thinking people (including those in the Church of England).

In the remainder of this post I shall explain that this argument undermines itself because the very principle of equality to which it appeals leads to the conclusion that same-sex marriage should not be accepted.

What do we mean by the principle of equality?

As the American writer John Safranek explains, the principle of equality is derived from the basic philosophical principle of non-contradiction. In Safranek’s words, the principle of non-contradiction:

‘… asserts that something cannot be and not be at the same time and under same conditions. For example, a woman cannot be both pregnant and not pregnant at the same time, according to the common understanding of ‘pregnant.’ Similarly an individual cannot simultaneously be and not be in the United States. Although one might speak of the person ‘being’ in both the United States and a foreign country because his image is communicated from there, he is not capable of bilocation, and therefore we are not using ‘be’ in the same sense.’ [2]

Applied to ethics the principle of equality seeks to avoid falling foul of the principle of non-contradiction by treating equally two agents who are in equal situations. To quote Safranek again:

‘…. The principle of equality proscribes treating differently two agents similarly situated in regard to all relevant factors; to do so would be to contradict oneself. The contradiction is that one claiming to act in a principled way thinks agent x deserves z but agent y who is similarly situated does not. It is to treat as unequal two parties judged as relevantly equal.’ [3]

As a good example of what Safranek is talking about, imagine two students who both give equally good answers in an exam. The person marking the exam holds to the principle that students should get the marks their answers deserve. However, he gives student A 80% and student B 30%. By so doing he treats them unequally and therefore contradicts his avowed principle that students should get the marks their work deserves. The work of the two students is ‘relevantly equal’ and therefore the principle of equality holds that they should be treated equally by being given equal marks.

The need for a common standard to establish equality

As Safranek goes on to further explain, in order to decide whether two situations are in fact equal one has to have a common standard of measurement against which to assess them.

‘Equality consists of a triadic relationship. To compare two things as equal or unequal, one needs two objects that can be compared and a standard by which to compare them; to speak of equality in isolation from a common standard is meaningless. Is a paraplegic Caucasian male equal to a Hispanic female track star? The question is unanswerable because, although two objects are being compared, some standard must be offered to compare them. The question of equality cannot be answered until the standard of comparison is stipulated. They are unequal in weight, sex, skin colour, mobility, ability to bear children, and numerous other qualities, but they are equal in being mammalian, human, alive, rational, desirous, and possessing five senses. These two individuals are equal to a census taker, since each counts as one citizen, but unequal to a track coach. Is an acre of land in Paris equal to an acre of land in Detroit? It all depends on whether the metric is area, financial worth, or soil quality. Whether the two are equal depends on the relevant standard, and the relevant standard does not depend on equality, but on other criteria considered important to the one comparing. Once the standard or metric has been established, then equality can be determined.’[4]

The appropriate standard for assessing same-sex marriage

The claim that is made by those campaigning for the Church of England to permit same-sex marriages is that marriages between two people of the same sex are equal to marriages between two people of the opposite sex. Hence the principle of treating equal things equally means that the Church of England should permit both.

However, as we have just noted, in order to determine whether these two types of marriage are in fact ‘relevantly equal’ we have to have a common standard against which to compare them. Since the Church of England holds that marriage was established by God (‘instituted by God in the time of man’s innocency’ as the Book of Common Prayer puts it) it follows that the common standard has to be the form of marriage which God established.

We learn what form of marriage God established from the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 and from Jesus’ teaching about marriage in Matthew 19:2-6 and Mark 10:2-9 which refers back to these creation accounts.

What we learn from these sources is that God established marriage as a permanent and exclusive sexual (‘one flesh’) relationship between one man and one woman which is in principle open to the procreation of children as a fruit of that relationship. When judged by this metric same-sex marriages fall short in two basic respects. They are not a sexual relationship between a man and a woman and they are intrinsically closed to procreation. It follows that they do not conform to the form of marriage established by God and that they are therefore not equal to the traditional, opposite sex, form of marriage currently permitted by the Church of England since this does.

Why same-sex marriages should not be accepted

What this means is that the appeal to equality in support of same-sex marriage being permitted by the Church of England undermines itself. Same-sex marriage is not equal to the form of marriage established by God which the Church of England celebrates. Therefore it should not be treated as if it was, because just as the principle of equality says equal things should be treated equally so also unequal things should not be treated as if they were.

If same-sex marriages are not a form of marriage established by God then what are they? The answer is that they are what the New Testament calls porneia, extra-marital forms of sexual activity that are contrary to God’s will and in which God’s human creatures should therefore not engage. [5]

To re-run the argument set out at the beginning of this post we can therefore say

  • Major premise – the principle of equality, enshrined in British law by the Equality Act of 2010, is a basic moral principle which all right thinking people should accept;
  • Minor premise – same-sex marriage is not equal to traditional marriage and is contrary to God’s will;
  • Conclusion – same-sex marriage should not be accepted by all right thinking people (including those in the Church of England).

M B Davie 16.4.19

[1] For details see the campaign’s website at http://www.cofe-equal-marriage.org.uk .

[2] John Safranek, The Myth of Liberalism (Washington DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2015), pp.43-44.

[3] Safranek, pp.44-45.

[4] Safranek. pp.51-52.

[5] For justification for this point see Martin Davie, Glorify God in your Body (London: CEEC, 2019), ch.8.

A Christian approach to divorce and re-marriage

A new government proposal

The lead story on the BBC news this morning was an announcement by the Ministry of Justice that the Government plans to introduce legislation in Parliament to change the law relating to divorce in England and Wales.

Should the proposals become law, the sole ground for divorce would become the ‘irretrievable breakdown of a marriage’ and the current possibility of seeking divorce on the grounds of adultery or unreasonable behaviour would be abolished. If this happens, then England and Wales will move to a totally ‘no fault’ system of divorce in which the sole criteria for ending a marriage will be that one or both parties in a marriage wish to end it and in which it will be impossible for that desire to be legally challenged by a spouse who wishes the marriage to continue.

Although the current proposals for a change in the law seem to have been driven largely by the legal profession, what is proposed can be seen to be in line with the way in which the thinking of the Church of England about divorce and re-marriage has changed since the 1960’s. A significant feature of this change has been the replacement of a distinction between guilty and innocent parties in divorce with an emphasis simply on the fact that a marriage can be seen to have failed.

There have been two reasons for this change. The first is the perception that ‘it is unwise and may also be uncharitable, for those outside the marriage to attempt to say precisely where the fault lies in any case.’[1] The second is the perception that what really brings a marriage to an end is not simply the performance of certain specific acts (such as acts of adultery) but the fact that the couple involved are no longer able, for whatever reason, to fulfil their marriage vows by providing each other with a relationship of ‘mutual society, help and comfort,’ It is a relationship of love that is at the heart of marriage and when this dies then the marriage dies with it even if it still formally exists.[2]

What the government calls the ‘irretrievable breakdown of a marriage’ and what the Church of England calls the ‘failure’ or ‘death’ of a marriage mean the same thing. The government and the Church of England can thus be said to be ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’ on this matter. Thy have both moved to the position that when a marital relationship can be seen to have broken down then a marriage can rightly be said to have come to an end and divorce (and re-marriage) is thus permissible.

What I want to look at in the remainder of this post is what God thinks of the issue. Does he agree that relationship breakdown is a legitimate reason for divorce? To answer this question I shall look in turn at what God says about the matter in the Old and New Testaments.

What does the Old Testament say?

Genesis 2:24

The relationship ordained by God in Genesis 2:24 is a permanent union. The Hebrew word dabaq which is used to describe this union is the same word used to describe the permanent bond between God and Israel in verses such as Deuteronomy 10:20, Joshua 22:5, and 2 Kings 18:6. Just as God is in a permanent and unbreakable covenant with his people, so also he has ordained that marriage should be a permanent and unbreakable union between one man and one woman.

Malachi 2:13-16

In Malachi 2:13-16 we read that God is opposed to divorce:

‘And this again you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favour at your hand. You ask, ‘Why does he not?’ Because the Lord was witness to the covenant between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Has not the one God made and sustained for us the spirit of life? And what does he desire? Godly offspring. So take heed to yourselves, and let none be faithless to the wife of his youth. ‘For I hate divorce, says the Lord the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless.’

These words tell us that God regards divorce so seriously that he will not accept the sacrificial offerings of the men of Israel who have divorced their wives. Elizabeth Achtemeier comments that:

Israelites married very early, before the age of twenty, and therefore verse 14 speaks of ‘the wife of your youth’ (cf. Prov. 2:17). The thought is that these men have spent years of mutual companionship with their spouses – building their homes, raising their children, facing life vicissitudes together – and then they have abandoned their wives for the sake of other women. It is little wonder that the act is called ‘violence’ (v.16), for it violently injures the well-being, the dreams, the securities, of all involved. (The reference to the ‘garment’ is the man’s symbolic act of spreading his garment over the woman as a sign of his choice of her, cf. Ruth 3:9; Ezek. 16:8). Malachi knows all about the desolation that accompanies the breakup of a family.

He is also certain about God’s attitude: The Lord hates divorce. It is an attitude that God never gets over, according to the Bible, and yet it is a fact rarely considered by divorcing persons. Usually they ask all the wrong questions. When a couple is considering a separation they are likely to ask, ‘Will I be happier?’ ‘Can I make it on my own?’ ‘Will it be better for the children?’ rather than ‘What is God’s attitude to the dissolution of this marriage?’ Here in this prophetic torah, as the ‘messenger of the Lord of Hosts’ (2:7), the prophet Malachi furnishes the reply.[3]

Deuteronomy 24:1-4

Although the Bible thus tells us that God hates divorce, it also recognises that divorce occurs. The Law of Moses seeks to limit the damage it causes by regulating it. We can see this in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which is the key piece of legislation in the Law of Moses regarding the matter since it is the only Old Testament passage that sets out the grounds, procedure, and consequences of divorce.

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 runs as follows:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favour in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter husband dislikes her and writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt upon the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance.’

John Stott notes that this passage ‘neither requires, nor recommends, nor even sanctions divorce.’[4] In technical terms it consists of a protasis, or description of conditions, in verses 1-3 and then in verse 4 an apodosis, a command that comes into play if these conditions are met. ‘If this, then that.’[5] God is not saying that the conditions in verses 1-3 must or should happen, only what must follow if they do.

As Stott says:

‘The law is not approving divorce; what it is saying is that if a man divorces his wife, and if he gives her a certificate, and if she leaves and remarries, and if her second husband dislikes and divorces her, or dies, then her first husband may not marry her again.[6]

The grounds for divorce referred to in this passage are that a husband finds ‘some indecency’ in his wife. What this might mean has been widely debated by ancient and modern scholars, but it seems most probable that it refers to some kind of immodest or indecent behaviour which nevertheless fell short of illicit sexual intercourse.[7] If a man divorces his wife on these grounds, the passage says, he then causes her to become ‘defiled’ (v4) if she marries another man.[8] As Peter Craigie explains, ‘the sense is that the woman’s remarriage after the first divorce is similar to adultery in that the woman cohabits with another man.’[9] Having caused her to become defiled in this way her husband cannot then marry her again because, to quote Craigie again:

‘If the woman were then to marry her first husband, after divorcing the second, the analogy with adultery would become even more complete; the woman lives first with one man, then another, and then, finally, returns to the first.’[10]

This kind of serial quasi-adultery is immoral conduct that will defile the land God is giving to his people. For this reason it is forbidden.

The primary purpose of this piece of Mosaic legislation is, as Chris Wright puts it, to stop a woman being ‘a kind of marital football, passed back and forth between irresponsible men,’[11] but, as Richard Davidson observes, it also points to the truth highlighted in Malachi 2:16 that divorce is contrary to God’s will even when there are grounds for it in the behaviour of a spouse:

‘… within the legislation is an internal indicator that such divorce brings about a state tantamount to adultery and therefore ultimately is not in harmony with the divine will. Though not illegal, it is not morally pleasing to God. Already in 24:4 it is indicated that breaking the marriage bond on grounds that are less than illicit sexual intercourse causes the woman to defile herself, that is, commit what is tantamount to adultery. By providing an internal indicator of divine disapproval of divorce, the legislation is pointing back to God’s Edenic ideal for permanency in marriage. God’s concession to less than ideal situations did not supplant the divine intention set out in Gen 2:24.’[12]

Exodus 21:10-11 is sometimes cited as another piece of legislation relating to divorce and is seen as showing that divorce is permissible if someone deprives their spouse of food, clothing or other marital rights. However, these verses have to do with the very specific situation of a slave taken as a wife who is then neglected when her husband marries a second wife. In this situation the solution laid down is not divorce, but freedom from slavery. As Doherty says, they thus do not provide ‘a general rule for divorce in monogamous marriages.’[13]

Davidson further notes that a good argument can also be made that the slave girl in question was not in fact married to her master since the Hebrew noun ona, translated ‘marital rights’ in the RSV, probably means lodging or shelter.[14] If this argument is correct it makes the passage even less relevant to the issue of divorce and completely undercuts the argument of David Instone-Brewer in his book Divorce and Remarriage that the teaching of these verses provided biblical sanction for divorce if there is a failure to provide food, clothing, or marital love, as well as in cases of infidelity. [15]

What does the New Testament say?

What does Jesus say?

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 forms part of the background to Jesus’ teaching about divorce. All Jewish schools of thought at the time of Jesus agreed that ‘adultery automatically annuls a marriage by creating a new sexual union in its place.’[16] For this reason Jewish law demanded the termination of a marriage if either premarital un-chastity or subsequent adultery was discovered (which is what lies behind Matthew 1:18-19).[17]

It was also agreed on the basis of Exodus 21:10-11 that divorce could take place if either a husband or wife refused food, clothing or conjugal love.

There was disagreement, however, on how to interpret the meaning of Deuteronomy 24:1, which was understood as a command of God through Moses governing the grounds of divorce. The Rabbinic schools of Shammai and Hillel both agreed that divorce could only rightly happen if a husband found ‘some indecency’ in his wife, but what did ‘some indecency’ mean?

The school of Shammai held that it referred to some form of sexual offence falling short of adultery. The school of Hillel, on the other hand, held that it could include anything that caused a husband to be displeased with his wife, including burning his dinner, being quarrelsome, or even the husband losing interest in her because he came across another woman who was more beautiful. In fact, for the school of Hillel, ‘anything that caused annoyance or embarrassment to a husband was a legitimate ground for a divorce suit.’[18]

In Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:1-9 Jesus addresses the issue of divorce in light of this existing Jewish discussion:

Matthew 5:31-32

‘It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.’

Matthew 19:1-9

Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan; and large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?  So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.’ They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?’ He said to them, ‘For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.  And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.’

In these passages Jesus makes four points about marriage and divorce:

1.Jesus teaches that according to Genesis 2:24 those who are married are joined together by God and it is not right for human beings to dissolve this union: ‘What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder’ (Matthew 19:6).

2.  Jesus teaches that even the permission for divorce granted in Deuteronomy is only a divine concession to human sinfulness (Matthew 19:8), following the internal indications in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 that we noted above, and in line with God’s general opposition to divorce in Malachi 2:16.

3. Jesus develops the implications of the teaching of Deuteronomy 24 about the ‘defilement’ of the divorced wife who re-marries by declaring that all forms of divorce and re-marriage result not just in defilement, but in adultery, since they substitute a new sexual union for the union created by God (Matthew 5:31-32, 19:9).

4. Jesus teaches that the only ground on which divorce is permitted is not the refusal of food, clothing or conjugal love, or the existence of something in the wife displeasing to the husband, or immodesty or indecent behaviour, but solely sexual intercourse outside the marital union (porneia, ‘unchastity’, Matthew 19:9). This fourth point is not explicitly made in the records of Jesus’ teaching in Mark 10:9-12 and Luke 16:18, but it is implicit in these other texts since any Jewish hearer or reader would have accepted that adultery was a legitimate ground for divorce unless this idea was explicitly ruled out. What Mark 10:12 does imply, however, which Matthew 19:9 does not, is that a wife can divorce her husband as well as a husband his wife.

It might be asked at this point how the permission for divorce given by Jesus in Matthew 19:9 fits into his overall teaching that because God has created marriage as a permanent union human beings should not bring it to an end. Aren’t these two parts of his teaching inconsistent?[19]

Don Carson helpfully explains that:

‘ …. sexual sin has a peculiar relation to Jesus’ treatment of Genesis 1:27; 2:24 (in Matt 19:4-6), because the indissolubility of marriage he defends by appealing to those verses from the creation accounts is predicated on sexual union (‘one flesh’). Sexual promiscuity is therefore a de facto exception. It may not necessitate divorce; but permission for divorce and remarriage under such circumstances, far from being inconsistent with Jesus’ thought, is in perfect harmony with it’[20]

Carson’s point that Matthew 19:9 does not necessitate divorce needs to be emphasised. As Stott observes, ‘Jesus did not teach that the innocent party must divorce an unfaithful partner, still less that marital unfaithfulness ipso facto dissolves the marriage.’ Indeed, Jesus ‘did not even encourage or recommend divorce for unfaithfulness… Jesus’ purpose was not to encourage divorce for this reason, but to forbid it for every other reason.’[21]

Importantly, as Carson also notes, Matthew 19:9 permits not only divorce but also re-marriage. One tradition of interpretation has held that because the marital union created by God is indissoluble Jesus meant that separation was permissible following adultery, but not re-marriage. However, in the words of Doherty:

‘Matthew 19:9 describes remarriage after divorce as adultery except when it follows sexual immorality. The implication is that remarriage after sexual immorality is not adultery, which must mean that the original marriage is truly ended. But most importantly, in Jesus’s context, divorce meant by definition that you could marry again. The Jewish divorce certificate said simply, ‘You are free to marry any [Jewish] man you wish.’ By permitting divorce after adultery, Jesus permitted remarriage too.’[22]

Equality in regard to divorce and adultery

It is also important to note that just as Jesus’ view of the grounds for divorce was a departure from contemporary Jewish thought so was the equal standing he gave to women in the matter. The prevailing Jewish view was that while men could divorce their wives women could not divorce their husbands and that adultery was something committed by a man against another man or by a woman against her husband. Jesus. however, taught that divorce was possible for women as well as for men and that men could commit adultery against their wives.

We can see this in Jesus’ teaching to his disciples in Mark 10:11-12 where we are told:

‘And he said to them, ‘whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and is she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Jesus’ teaching here only makes sense if  men can commit adultery against their wives and wives can divorce their husbands.

Jesus’ view that women can divorce and men can commit adultery has been the view accepted in the Church ever since. It  forms part of the overall egalitarian sexual ethic of the Church which declares that the same standards of sexual conduct (fidelity within marriage and abstinence outside it) are to be expected of both sexes rather than of women only (which was the prevailing view in the Greco-Roman world in the first century).

What does St Paul say?

In 1 Corinthians 7:10-16 St Paul begins by quoting the general teaching of Jesus as preserved for us in the Gospels that a wife should not divorce her husband or a husband his wife (‘separate’ in v.10 means ‘divorce.’).[23] He then considers an issue which never came up during Jesus’ earthly ministry, namely what should happen when a Christian has a spouse who is an unbeliever and that spouse initiates a divorce:

‘To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, let her remain single or else be reconciled to her husband)—and that the husband should not divorce his wife. To the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.  For the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner desires to separate, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. For God has called us to peace. Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife?’

Speaking with the authority of an Apostle,[24] Paul declares that in this situation, ‘a Christian should not initiate separation just because they are married to a non-Christian. But if the non-Christian leaves, let them, so that you can live ‘at peace’ with others. You don’t need to try to make them stay. When a non-Christian divorces a Christian, the Christian is ‘not enslaved’ (v.15).’[25] As Doherty says,

‘…. the phrase, ‘not enslaved’ in 1 Corinthians 7:15 must mean ‘free to remarry.’ Under Roman law, you obtained the freedom to remarry simply by separating from your previous spouse. This is corroborated by the fact that Paul uses the same word in verses 27 and 39 to say wife and husband are ‘bound’ together, which he contrasts with being ‘free’ to marry (see also Rom.7:2-3). Not being bound means being able to marry.[26]

Three principles unite the grounds on which Jesus and Paul allow divorce and remarriage:

  1. Both sexual immorality and abandonment by an unbelieving spouse violate one of the two fundamental components of marriage (either the ‘leaving and the cleaving’ or the ‘one flesh’ unity).
  2. Both sexual immorality and abandonment leave one party without any other option if attempts at reconciliation are spurned.
  3. In both cases divorce is therefore a last resort and an admission of defeat.[27]

What is the overall message of the Bible about God’s view of marriage, divorce and re-marriage?

Overall the Bible tells us that:

  • God intends marriage to be for life. ‘His intention was and is that human sexuality will find fulfilment in marriage, and that marriage will be an exclusive, loving and lifelong union.’[28]
  • Divorce is never either commanded or commended in Scripture. Even when it can be justified ‘it remains a sad and sinful declaration from the divine ideal.’[29]
  • Under the New Testament dispensation there are two legitimate grounds for divorce: (a) when the marital union is broken by extra-marital sexual intercourse, and (b) when a Christian is deserted by their unbelieving spouse.
  • When divorce takes place on these grounds then re-marriage can be legitimate.[30]
  • Re-marriage in all other circumstances constitutes adultery. In a situation of domestic violence or abuse then separation from the perpetrator is justified (and indeed can be argued to be required if there is danger to a spouse or any children involved), but this does not mean that divorce is justified except on the grounds noted above. We are not authorised to exceed the limits for divorce which God has laid down.

What all this means is that the Church of England was right to move away from the absolute indissolubilist position which it took for most of the twentieth century. The Bible indicates that God permits (though never desires) divorce and re-marriage in the specific circumstances described by Jesus in the Gospels and by Paul in 1 Corinthians.

However, what Jesus and Paul teach rules out the idea put forward by the Church of England and by the government that divorce (and therefore re-marriage) are permissible on the general ground that the relationship of love in a marriage has died, rather than on the specific grounds that there has been an act of adultery, or that a Christian believer has been rejected by their non-Christian spouse.

What are the practical consequences of a Christian position?

So, how should Christians act in a way that is consistent with what God teaches through the Bible on this matter? In general terms they need to bear witness to what God has laid down concerning divorce and re-marriage in both teaching and example. As Andrew Cornes writes,

‘Both are necessary. Teaching without example is hollow. If a church teaches about the lifelong nature of marriage, but its members are divorcing in large numbers and its leadership is doing nothing to help marriages in difficulty nor to discipline those who separate contrary to the will of Christ, then that church will have no impact on the attitudes to marriage of the society around it. And example without teaching is ineffective. If a church has a membership whose marriages are largely stable and yet never speaks of Christ’s command to man and wife not to separate nor his power to sustain even difficult marriages, society will simply imagine that Christians happen to have good marriages but will remain unaware that Christ’s teaching is radically different from their own presuppositions. Teaching and example must therefore be kept together in every church’s witness.’[31]

In more specific terms Christians need to:

  • Accept and teach that God has ordained that marriage should be for life and that, even when permitted, divorce and re-marriage are a departure from God’s intention for his human creatures.
  • Practice the Christian calling to exercise forgiveness and seek reconciliation when marriage gets difficult (‘ Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you’, Ephesians 4:31-32) and encourage and support others to do the same.
  • Separate from an abusive spouse if their wellbeing and those of their children requires it, and encourage others to the same, but seek reconciliation if possible and only divorce on the grounds laid down in Scripture. [32]
  • Only divorce if the conditions in Matthew 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:15 are met through a spouse being adulterous or an unbelieving spouse wanting a divorce, and then only if there is no realistic possibility of reconciliation
  • When divorced, live a godly life as a single person with the requirement for sexual abstinence that this involves.
  • Provide friendship and support to those who are single as a result of divorce, particularly when they are facing the challenges of being a single parent.
  • Only re-marry if they are free to do so because their former spouse committed adultery before the divorce or has subsequently sundered the marriage bond by entering into a new sexual relationship, [33] or because they have been divorced by a non-Christian spouse.
  • Only re-marry in church people who are free to marry under these conditions.

Where re-marriage is possible it still signifies a departure from God’s intention that the first marriage of one or both new spouses should have been life-long. There therefore needs to be some way of giving this truth what Oliver O’Donovan calls ‘institutional visibility’ by marking this truth liturgically. [34]

Since neither the Book of Common Prayer nor the Common Worship rites make provision for this, one way of doing this might be to only allow a service of Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Marriage and to explain to the couple involved the reason for not holding an actual marriage service. What it is not legitimate to do, of course, is to use a service of Prayer and Dedication to bless a new relationship that is in fact adulterous because it exceeds the limits laid down in Matthew 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:15.

Much of the material in this post has been drawn from chapter 9 of Glorify God in your Body, which is a comprehensive study of ‘Human identity and flourishing in marriage, singleness and friendship’ which has been commended by the Church of England Evangelical Council as a resource for the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith project. Details of this study can be found on the CEEC website at http://www.ceec.info/

[1] The House of Bishops, Marriage (London: Church House Publishing, 1999), p.16.

[2] For this latter point see Putting Asunder (London: SPCK, 1966), pp. 33-62 and Marriage and the Church’s’  Task (London: Church Information Office, 1978) pp. 123-135.

[3] Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1986), pp.182-183.

[4] John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today (Basingstoke: Marshalls, 1984), p.262.

[5] See John Murray, Divorce (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1976), p.p.3-8.

[6] Stott, pp.262-263.

[7] S. R. Driver, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Deuteronomy (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,1902), p.271.

[8] The literal translation of the Hebrew is that the woman ‘has been caused to defile herself’ as a result of the action of her first husband.

[9] Peter Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), p.305.

[10] Craigie, p.305.

[11] Chris Wright, Deuteronomy (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996), p.255.

[12] Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), p.397.

[13] Sean Doherty, The Only Way is Ethics- Part 1: Sex and Marriage (Milton Keynes; Authentic Media, 2015), p.103.

[14] Davidson, pp.191-193.

[15] David Instone-Brewer, Remarriage and Divorce (Milton: Keynes: Paternoster, 2011).

[16] R.T. France, Matthew (Leicester and Grand Rapids: Inter-Varsity Press/Eerdmans, 1985,) p. 123.

[17] The Babylonian Talmud, Mishnah Yebamoth 2:8, Sotah 5:1).

[18] William L Lane, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids and London: Eerdmans/Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1974), p.363.

[19] It is this apparent inconsistency that has led scholars to suggest that Matthew 19:9 is not from Jesus, but is a qualification of Jesus’ teaching by the Early Church.

[20] Don Carson, ‘Matthew,’ in Tremper Longman III and David E Garland (eds), Expositors Bible Commentary, vol.9 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), p.417.

[21] Stott, p.267.

[22] Doherty, pp. 113-114. For a detailed presentation of the case that Matthew 19:9 permits re-marriage see Murray pp. 33-43.

[23] For the fact that St. Paul is drawing on the teaching of Jesus see David Wenham, Did St Paul Get Jesus Right? (Oxford: Lion, 2010), pp. 56-6o.

[24] Stott, p.269.

[25] Doherty, p.112.

[26] Doherty, p.112. For a detailed study of 1 Corinthians 7:10-16 and why verse 15 allows remarriage see Murray, op cit. ch.3.

[27] For these points see Craig Blomberg, Matthew (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1992), p. 293.

[28] Stott, p.271.

[29] Stott, p. 271.

[30] It is sometimes argued that the witness of the Early Fathers shows that the early Church viewed the teaching of the New Testament as prohibiting re-marriage after divorce. However, if we look at the teaching of the earliest Fathers, while they do generally reject the re-marriage of wives and guilty male spouses they do not reject all remarriage after divorce in principle (see William Luck, Divorce and Remarriage, Biblical Studies Press, 2013 Appendix F). Furthermore, while we need to take their witness  seriously it has to be compared by the witness of the Bible itself and set aside if it contradicts it.

[31] Andrew Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage (Tain: Christian Focus, 2012), Kindle edition, Loc.7360. Cornes himself holds that marriage is absolutely indissoluble in all circumstances, but what he says in this passage also applies in the case of the position taken in this post.

[32] As Doherty comments (p.120), ‘although it is essential to leave a dangerous situation, to seek professional help, and to separate permanently if the perpetrator of abuse does not repent., I have to say that I cannot see a biblical basis for initiating divorce in such circumstances. Jesus only gave one exception to his  prohibition of divorce and I don’t think we can add to that.’

[33] If adultery makes divorce permissible because it sunders the one flesh marital union then by extension this would be true of a sexual relationship following a divorce. If the marital union was not broken before the divorce it would be at this point.

[34] Oliver O’Donovan, Marriage and Permanence (Nottingham: Grove Books, 1978), p. 20.

A Review of ‘Pastoral Principles for living well together’

What are the Pastoral Principles? 

Following on from the House of Bishops’ pastoral guidance on welcoming transgender people we now also have a set of ‘Pastoral Principles for living well together.’

These ‘Pastoral Principles’ have been produced by the Pastoral Advisory Group, which is a group chaired by the Bishop of Newcastle that was established by the House of Bishops in 2017 to ‘advise dioceses on pastoral issues concerning human sexuality so that we can make explicit our commitment to show the love of Christ to all people, regardless of sexual or gender identity.’ [1]

As GS Misc 1200, ‘The Living in Love and Faith Project and the Pastoral Advisory Group,’[2] presented to the February 2019 session of General Synod explains, while the episcopal members of the Pastoral Advisory Group have been giving advice on pastoral issues referred to them by other bishops, the main work of the Group as a whole has been the production of the Pastoral Principles document. This document was agreed by the House of Bishops at its meeting in December 2018 and has been commended by the House for use in the dioceses and parishes of the Church of England.

GS MISC 1200 goes on to say that the purpose of the document is to:

‘… set out some principles of pastoral practice for how the people of God in the Church of England can live well together within the parameters of its current position on marriage and the different deeply held convictions that individuals and churches hold on these matters.’[3]

It further adds:

‘The Church has been found wanting in its welcome and treatment of LGBTI+ people and much can be done to address this. The Pastoral Principles are about encouraging churches to offer a welcome that is Christ-centred, that sees difference as a gift rather than a problem, and that builds trust and models generosity. The Bishops hope that these principles will go some way toward inspiring individuals and congregations to examine and enhance the quality of their welcome for all who are seeking a spiritual home in which they can flourish.’[4]

The starting point for the Pastoral Principles Document[5] is the claim that the quality of relationships within the Church of England ‘is hindered by six pervading evils’ which it identifies as prejudice, silence, ignorance, fear, hypocrisy and the misuse of power. The readers of the document are

‘…invited to consider whether these are at work in your church community and how your church might…

Acknowledge prejudice

Speak into silence

Address ignorance

Cast out fear

Admit hypocrisy

Pay attention to power.’

The document then declares:

‘Acting on these evils – which are applicable to all people – could be transformative for your church community and for the church as a whole. Together our church communities are called to LOVE:

Listen attentively and openly

Open your heart and mind without judgmentalism

Value everyone’s vulnerability and perspective

Express concern and empathy.’

The main body of the document consists of six sections, each of which gives a brief explanation of why we need to acknowledge prejudice, speak into silence, address ignorance, cast out fear, admit hypocrisy and pay attention to power, and then provides ‘something to ponder’ and ‘some questions to explore together.’

What is good about the document?

The basic point made by the document is one that everyone should be able to agree upon. Prejudice, silence, ignorance, fear, hypocrisy and the misuse of power are indeed evils which exist in the Church today and which need to be addressed and overcome.

Furthermore much of what the document says about addressing these evils is true and helpful. For example, it is true that ‘Central to our faith is the belief that each of us is unique; we rejoice that we are fearfully and wonderfully made by God,’ it is true that the sacraments ‘are a means of God’s grace in living lives of holiness in obedience to God’s call’ and it is helpful to be reminded to avoid ‘the cheap grace that denies the costliness of Christ’s call to his disciples to take up their cross and follow him.’

What is problematic about the document?

However, there is also much that is problematic about the document.

First, the reason why the document is necessary is said to be because ‘The Church has been found wanting in its welcome and treatment of LGBTI+ people.’ What we are not told, however, is who has found the Church wanting and on what basis. Nor are we told why we should believe that what the people who have declared the Church to be wanting say is actually true. What we have is thus a claim about why the document is needed that is neither unpacked nor substantiated.

Secondly, the document fails to define its terms. We are never told precisely what is meant by the key terms prejudice, silence, ignorance, fear, hypocrisy or misuse of power. In addition, there are lots of other terms that are used, but which are never properly explained. For example, the document stresses the importance of ‘authentic relationships’ and ‘deep listening’ but doesn’t explain what these terms mean. The document says that we need to repudiate ‘pastoral practice that is coercive or abusive’ but gives no guidance as to how we can identify forms of pastoral practice that come under these categories. The document suggests that we should ‘encourage vulnerability in our relationships,’ but it does not say what this might mean in practice.

Thirdly, and linked to the previous point, the document never gives any specific lived examples to illustrate what it says. For example it talks about ‘situations where people who might wish to be open about their sexual orientation feel forced to dissemble,’ but does not give any specific examples of situations in which people have felt forced to dissemble. For another example, it talks about the need for ‘a quality and depth of relationships that means that difference is respected and all feel they belong,’ but it again does not given any specific examples to illustrate what this means.

This lack of lived examples matters because it gives the whole document a very abstract tone that will make it difficult for many Christians in the parishes to engage with it.

Fourthly, the document declares that the source of authority for those in the Church of England consists of ‘the Bible and the Church of England’s foundational documents.’ This account of authority ignores the difference in authority between the Bible and these foundational documents, fails to explain which these foundational documents are, and ignores the place also given by the Church of England to the teaching of the Fathers of the Church and to other authorities such as Lambeth Conference resolutions, General Synod motions, Canons, Measures, and guidance given by the House of Bishops.

Fifthly, what the document says about fear lacks honesty and balance. The document states:

‘There is fear about ‘breaking ranks’ and speaking out. There is fear that if one’s personal circumstances are known then friendships may be affected or the validity of one’s ministry may be called into question. There is fear among the clergy of how they may be held to account as they attempt to care. There is fear that a bishop’s known views will colour her or his engagement with their people. These kinds of fear must be addressed because it can corrupt our life together and imprison individuals.’

What is said here is dishonest because what is really being said is that it is a bad thing that clergy are afraid to disclose that they are in a same-sex sexual relationship and are afraid to offer prayers of blessing to same-sex couples, and that bishops are afraid to declare their support for a change in the Church’s teaching and practice on LGBTI+ issues. This is what is meant and so this is what should have been said.

There is also a lack of balance because there is no acknowledgement of the fear experienced by clergy and laity who hold to the Church’s traditional teaching on human sexuality and human identity and who are afraid that they will be attacked as ‘homophobic’ or ‘transphobic’ in consequence and that they will receive no support from the Church when this happens. This is a particularly significant issue for lay people who may well be subject to discipline or even dismissal from their employment unless they are willing to go along with the secular pro LGBT+ agenda.

If fear is a bad thing then this fear needs to be addressed as well.

Sixthly, the document declares that the existence of ‘tensions and difficulties both within and across our church communities’ arising from differences in theology should be seen ‘as a sign of strength rather than weakness in that it reflects our understanding that God’s church is a diverse church, welcoming the diversity of the people that God calls.’ The problem here is that the document seems to give a blanket endorsement to theological tensions and difficulties in the Church of England. What it does not address is why tensions and difficulties arising from a group or groups within the Church rejecting orthodox, biblical, Christian teaching should be regarded in a positive light.

It is certainly the case that the Church needs to be diverse because it is meant to include within itself people from both sexes, all races and all social groups united together through saving faith in Jesus Christ (see Galatians 3:28). However, it does not follow that the Church should therefore have within it a diversity of belief and contain teaching that is contrary to what God has revealed. The one does not follow from the other and the New Testament endorses the one but not the other.

Seventhly, the document insists that good pastoral care of LGBTI+ people must involve giving people ‘space, permission and opportunities to speak if they want to.’ The unanswered question here is what should happen if what they want to say goes against orthodox biblical teaching. Should they still be given space, permission and opportunity to speak even if the result is that the Church gives a platform for falsehood rather than truth, and even if there is a danger of the faithful being confused or misled?

Eighthly, and most significantly, the document puts forward an unduly limited understanding of what it means for the Church to be a community in which people ‘live well together.’ The position taken by the document seems to be that the Church will be a community in which people live well together provided that it deals with the evils of prejudice, silence, ignorance, fear, hypocrisy and the misuse of power and instead practices love in the way that it defines that term. However, the fact that such a view of the matter is too limited can be seen if we engage in a simple thought experiment.

Imagine a church in which there were a group of people who were habitually drunk. Imagine also that the people concerned were completely open and vocal about their drunkenness and received nothing but understanding and affirmation from all the other members of that church, including those in positions of power. In terms of the Pastoral Advisory Group document this would be a church in which people were living well together because none of the six evils they identify would be an issue and the members of the community would be practising love.

The question is, however, whether that church would be living well before God if it simply accepted the presence of habitual drunkenness among its members. The New Testament is clear that drunkenness is something that is incompatible with faithful Christian discipleship (see Romans 13:13, Galatians 5:21, Ephesians 5:18, 1 Peter 4:3). It therefore follows that by tolerating habitual drunkenness the members of that church would be failing to live up to the Church’s basic calling to teach all people everywhere to live as faithful followers of Christ (Matthew 28:19).

Furthermore the members of that church would also be failing to show love. This is because, contrary to what is said on the Pastoral Advisory Group document, love is not just about listening attentively and openly, opening your heart and mind without judgmentalism, valuing everyone’s vulnerability and perspective and expressing concern and empathy.

In the Christian tradition to love someone or something is to discern its nature, delight in its existence, and act towards it in accordance with its existence. To love human beings thus means to discern who they are, delight in who they are, and respond to them accordingly. Because all human beings are made by God to know, love, and serve him, we show love to them when we behave towards them in ways that help them to achieve this purpose. In the hypothetical case sketched out above, loving the habitual drunkards would thus mean challenging them about their behavior and supporting them in seeking to change it. Only thus would they be helped to serve God as they were created to do.

What this thought experiment shows is that living well together as a church involves more than the Pastoral Advisory Group suggests. It also involves challenging forms of behavior that are incompatible with faithful Christian discipleship and supporting the people involved in seeking to change the way they live.

In relation to LGBTI+ people this mean that a church that wants to live well needs to be willing to not only welcome those with same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria, but also, if necessary, to challenge people about engaging in same-sex sexual activity and gender transition and to support them in abstaining from this kind of sexual activity and living according to their God given sex. Only if it does this will it be a church that truly shows love since only if it does this will it help people to serve God by living in the way he made  them to live.


What all this means is that the Pastoral Principles are deeply flawed as a resource for churches seeking to be welcoming and supportive communities for all people, including those who identify as LGBTI+. Those churches who are conscious that they need help in this area would do better to turn to the Church Audit material available from the Living Out group. [6]

M B Davie 14.3.19

[1] GS Misc 1158, Next Steps on Human Sexuality, at https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2017- 11/gs-misc-1158-next-steps-on-human-sexuality.pdf.

[2] GS Misc 1200, The Living in Love and Faith Project and the Pastoral Advisory Group, at  https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2019-01/GS%20Misc%201200.pdf.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The Pastoral Principles Document is available from the Church of England in hard copy, but is also available online at https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2019-02/PAG-PP-website.pdf.

[6] Living Out Church Audit at https://www.livingout.org/resources/the-living-out-church-audit .

Why marriage and procreation belong together (Part 2)

Dr Meg Warner has now responded to my critique of her article ‘Elephants, Penguins, Procreation and Japanese Knotweed’[1] published on this blog on 20 February with a further article of her own entitled ‘Elephants, Penguins, Procreation and Japanese Knotweed (Part 2).’[2] This blog post is a response to this further article.

In her second article Dr Warner puts forward three objections to my argument in response to her original piece.

Why we need to read the Bible as whole.

First she objects to my statement that the problem with her reading of Genesis 1 and 2:

‘… is that it ignores the basic rule of biblical interpretation that you need to read biblical books as whole entities. Genesis 1 and 2 are part of a much bigger continuous narrative that extends all the way to Genesis 50 and so they have to be read together, and read in the light of this bigger narrative.’

Her response is to say that reading biblical books as whole entities is a rule, but not the only rule to be observed in biblical interpretation, and that care needs to be taken to identify and to honour the multiple voices in the text, and to avoid doing violence to them by adopting a ‘flat’ interpretation that assumes concordance between all elements.’

I entirely agree with her that when reading a biblical text one has to do justice to all the elements it contains and not suppress any of them. However, I would argue that a successful reading of a biblical text is one that not only does justice to all the individual elements of the biblical text, but also does justice to the way in which those elements have been brought together in a particular biblical book and to the way in which they have been brought together to form the biblical canon as a whole.

This is because any successful reading of a text is one that honours the intent of its author and in the case of the Bible this means honouring the intent of the authors or editors of the biblical books and also honouring the intent of God who through the inspiration of the Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:21) is the ultimate author not only of the individual books that are in the Bible, but of the Bible as whole.

My problem with what Dr Warner said in her original article is that she isolates Genesis 1 and 2 from each other, from the rest of Genesis, and from the rest of the biblical canon, and thus fails to offer a successful reading of them.

Why procreation in biblical marriages is something we should emulate.

Secondly, she objects to my claim that the Bible shows that procreation is an intrinsic part of marriage on the grounds that I have not given sufficient attention to the difference between behaviour which the biblical writers want us to emulate and that which simply reflects the ‘ordinary practice of the time’ and which we are not called to emulate.

I agree with her that there is an important distinction between what is recorded in the Bible and what we are called to emulate as Christians today. For example St. Peter’s denial of Jesus is recorded in the Bible, but we are not called to emulate it, any more than we are called to emulate King David’s adultery with Bathsheba.

Where I would disagree with her is that I think there are good grounds for saying that having children within marriage is a form of behaviour that we are called to emulate. These grounds are (a) God’s command to his human creatures to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28) and (b) the account of the marriage of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2-5,which show us that God created marriage to be the context in which this command is to be fulfilled.

Why Adam and Eve were married.

This brings us to her third and most important objection to my argument, which is that she holds that so far from Adam and Eve being a paradigm for marriage there is no evidence that they were married at all. In her words:

‘… far from presenting Adam and Eve as a paradigmatic married couple, Genesis does not even present them as married. There is no record of their marriage in Genesis, any more than Genesis tells us that living creatures and birds married before fulfilling God’s mandate to them to ‘Be fruitful and multiply’

For most Christians this would seem a very odd claim to make. This is because the Christian tradition from earliest times has always seen God’s bringing Eve to Adam and his joyful acceptance of her (Genesis 2:22-23) as the first marriage. John Calvin comments on Genesis 2:22, for example:

‘Moses now relates that marriage was divinely instituted, which is especially useful to be known; for since Adam did not take a wife to himself at his own will, but received her as offered and appropriated to him by God, the sanctity of marriage hence more clearly appears, because we recognise God as its author.’[3]

This reading of Genesis 2:22-23 is seen as supported by the fact that from that point onwards in Genesis Adam and Eve are referred to as husband and wife.

Thus we see the following references to Adam and Eve as husband and wife following on after Genesis 2:22-23:

‘And the man and his wife were naked, and were not ashamed’ (Genesis 2:25).

‘So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate’ (Genesis 3:6).

‘And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden’ (Genesis 3:8)

‘To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’ And to Adam he said ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life’ (Genesis 3:16-17).

‘The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living. And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them’ (Genesis 3:20-21).

‘Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord’’ (Genesis 4:1).

‘And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth, for she said, “God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel, for Cain slew him’ (Genesis 4:25)

I have quoted the RSV here, but other English translations similarly use the terms husband and wife in these verses and translations in other languages use equivalent terms. Thus the German Luther Bible translates Genesis 2:25 as ‘Und sie waren beide nackt, der Mensch und das Weib, und schamten sich nicht’[4] (‘Mensch’ and ‘Weib’ being ‘man’ and ‘wife’).

In the face of this ancient and continuing tradition of seeing Adam and Eve as a married couple Genesis 2-4 why does Dr Warner declare that these chapters do not depict Adam and Eve as married? The answer she gives is that the Hebrew words translated into English as husband or wife, ish and ishshah, ‘mean both woman/wife and man/husband, and therefore do not point necessarily to a marital relationship.’

What Dr Warner says in this quotation is completely correct. The words for husband and wife in biblical Hebrew are also the words for man and woman. This means that in all the verse in Genesis 2-4 which I have quoted above it would be linguistically possible to substitute ‘man’ for ‘husband’ and ‘woman’ for ‘wife.’

What this means is that the decision to use the terms husband and wife or their equivalent in translations of the Bible is a decision to interpret the biblical text in a particular way. However, this does not give any advantage to Dr Warner’s position since she too has made a decision about how to interpret the text (albeit a different decision from the one that is normally made).

What we are faced with, then, are two different decisions about how to interpret Genesis 2-4, both of which are linguistically possible. So how do we decide which decision is to be preferred?

I believe that the traditional decision is better for two reasons.

First, when two translations are linguistically possible one has to let the context decide. In terms of Genesis 2-4 this means one has to decide whether the type of relationship described in this chapter is a marital one (in which case the traditional interpretation would be better) or a more casual or temporary type of relationship (in which Dr Warner’s preferred option of referring to Adam as Eve’s ‘man’ or Eve as Adam’s ‘woman’ would be better).

In my view there can be no doubt what kind of relationship these chapters describe. They describe a monogamous, exclusive, permanent, sexual relationship between a man and woman that is oriented to the procreation of children. This is what the Jewish, and subsequently the Christian tradition, have meant when they have talked about a relationship as being a marriage and that is why they have used marital language to translate ish and ishshah. This marital language correctly expresses the kind of relationship between Adam and Eve which Genesis 2-4 describes.

To put the same thing another way, even if the words man and woman were used in the place of husband and wife in these chapters it would still remain the case that the relationship described is what the Jewish and Christian traditions would describe as marriage. This being the case, not using the term husband and wife to translate ish and ishshah would simply involve failing to make the nature of the relationship between Adam and Eve clear. It would thus be a poor act of interpretation.

Secondly, and for a Christian decisively, in Matthew 19:3-12, and Mark 10:2-12 Jesus clearly refers to the relationship between Adam and Eve described in Genesis as a marital one. The point made by Jesus in both these parallel passages is that the model for marriage is that established by God at creation as described in Genesis 1 and 2 and it is for this reason that existing Jewish discussion of divorce and re-marriage is too lenient. It follow that Jesus must have viewed Adam and Eve as being married since otherwise his argument makes no sense.

Since Jesus is God incarnate what he says in these passages has to be regarded as decisive. God, is as I have said, the ultimate author of Scripture and so what we have in these two gospel passages is the author of Scripture telling us what the meaning of Scripture is. The only way that Dr Warner’s argument can be sustained in the face of these gospel passages is to say that Jesus failed to understand Genesis properly. These means saying that God himself did not understand the Scriptures of which he was the author and this something that no Christian can ever rightly say.

It follows, once again, that what is described in Genesis 2-4 is a marriage and so translating ish and ishah as husband and wife is the right interpretative move to make.

Why Genesis 2:24 is about marriage.

Not only does Dr Warner hold that Adam and Eve themselves were not married, but she also holds that Genesis 2:24 does not refer to marriage either. In her words this verse ‘does not allude to marriage at all, but rather to the strong pull between men and women that is the consequence of God’s actions in creation.’

There are three problems with this argument.

First of all since, as we have seen, it is right to view Adam and Eve as in a marital relationship it follows that the Christian tradition has been right to see Genesis 2:22-23 in terms of God Bringing Adam and Eve together in the first marriage.

This being the case, Genesis 2:24, ‘Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh,’ is describing how marriage shall continue. What it is saying is that because Adam and Eve have been joined together in matrimony by God therefore subsequent generations of God’s human creatures shall also be joined together in matrimony. A good parallel is Exodus 20:8-11 where we read that because God rested from his work of creation on the seventh day therefore he ‘blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it’ as the day on which God’s people too should rest. A linguistically similar series of passages in which God’s action forms the basis for the subsequent action of his people can be found in Exodus 13:15, Leviticus 17:11, 12, Numbers 18:24 and Deuteronomy 5:15, 15:11, 15.

Secondly, what is described in Genesis 2:24 is not just men and women having a ‘strong pull’ towards one another. What is described instead is the establishment of a new relationship between a man and woman which is marital in form in that, like the marriage between Adam and Eve which it echoes, it is an exclusive, monogamous, permanent, sexually intimate union between a man and a woman.[5]

Thirdly, Jesus quotes Genesis 2:24 in Matthew 19:5 and Mark 10:7 to establish that marriage is a permanent union which humans should not break. It follows that he saw this verse as describing marriage and, as noted above, what he says about the matter has to be regarded as decisive since he is God himself describing the meaning of the words of which he is the ultimate author. As before, if Dr Warner is right then God is wrong and this something that we can never rightly say.


What all this means is that we should say that the relationship between Adam and Eve was a marital relationship. Furthermore according to Scripture it is the paradigmatic marriage which forms the basis for all subsequent married relationships.

As noted earlier, Genesis 2-5 show us that Adam and Eve fulfilled God’s command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ through their marriage thus establishing that procreation is an integral part of the purpose for which marriage was created.

It follows that my original argument in Glorify God in your body that same-sex relationships cannot be regarded as marriages both because they are between two people of the same sex, and because as such they are inherently non procreative, still stands.

M B Davie 6.3.19

[1] Meg Warner ‘Elephants, Penguins, Procreation and Japanese Knotweed’ athttps://viamedia.news/2019/02/08/elephants-penguins-procreation-japanese-knotweed/.

[2] Meg Warner ‘Elephants, Penguins, Procreation and Japanese Knotweed (Part 2)’https://viamedia.news/2019/03/04/elephants-penguins-procreation-japanese-knotweed-part-2/.

[3] John Calvin, Genesis (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1984). P.134.

[4] German Luther Bible at http://www.ntslibrary.com/Bible%20-%20German%20Luther%20Translation.pdf

[5] For detailed justification of this point see Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), pp.42-48 and the literature he cites.

Why marriage and procreation belong together

In the history of Christian theology it has often proved necessary to hold two apparently contradictory assertions together in order to express the truth about God and the human situation.

Thus we have to hold that:

  • God is one and yet the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all God;
  • Jesus Christ was (and is) both fully divine and yet also fully human;
  • God is completely sovereign and yet human beings have genuine freedom and responsibility:
  • We are saved without works and yet good works will necessarily be performed by all who are saved.

In this post I want to add another item to this list. I shall argue that marriage is good in itself without children and yet the procreation of children is an integral part of the purpose of marriage.

In her paper ‘Elephants, Penguins, Procreation and Japanese Knotweed,’[1] Dr Meg Warner has responded to the argument I put forward in my new book for the Church of England Evangelical Council, Glorify God in your body. In this book I argue that same-sex relationships cannot be marriages because ‘a relationship between two people of the same sex intrinsically closed to procreation, cannot be a marriage.’[2] Her response to this argument is to say that it is unconvincing from a biblical standpoint because ‘Nowhere does the Bible say that procreation is an integral element of marriage.’[3]

There are two problems with this response.

First of all, throughout the Bible, it is either stated that marriage leads to the procreation of children, or it is assumed that it will. Time without number in the Bible people who are married have children and this is regarded as a normal and expected turn of events, and as the way in which God builds up his people.

We can see this for example, at the end of the Book of Ruth where Boaz states his intention to marry Ruth and the inhabitants of Bethlehem declare their hope that the marriage will result in children:

‘May the Lord make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you prosper in Eph′rathah and be renowned in Bethlehem; and may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman.’ (Ruth 4:11-12).

The story then continues by telling us how this hope was fulfilled through the birth of Obed, the grandfather of King David, and how this brings blessing to Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi whose own sons have died.

‘So Bo′az took Ruth and she became his wife; and he went in to her, and the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Na′omi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next of kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ Then Na′omi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Na′omi.’ They named him Obed; he was the father of Jesse, the father of David.’ (Ruth 4:13-17)

Conversely, when marriages do not lead to the birth of children, as in the case of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 15:1-5), Hannah and Elkanah (1 Samuel 1:1-10), or Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-7) this is seen as something problematic for the people concerned and as a potential impediment to the fulfilment of the purposes and promises of God.

Secondly, the Bible traces the expectation that marriage will be procreative right back to the creation of the human race. It says that the reason we should expect marriages to result in children is that the paradigm form of marriage instituted by God is one that leads to the birth of children.

Warner evades what the Bible says on this point by separating Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.

On Genesis 1 she comments:

‘Procreation is foregrounded strongly in Genesis 1. In verse 28 God blesses the first humans and says, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…’. This is God’s first instruction and first blessing. It is tempting to interpret it as a special, central, divine imperative for humans. It is, however, made also to animals and birds (verse 22) and there is no requirement for humans to marry first, any more that there is a requirement for animals or birds to marry.’[4]

On Genesis 2 she states:

‘The ‘not good’ thing in Genesis 2 was that the human being was alone (Gen 2:18). So, after some initial false starts, God made another human being, a woman (ishshah), to be a ‘helper’ with the adam. Note that she was not created primarily to bring the adam (who only now is identified as a male human [ish], signifying the beginnings of gender) companionship or to have his children, but to ‘help’ him in his vocation of serving the earth. (Note, too, that the Hebrew word ezer [‘helper’] doesn’t imply subordination – it is often used to describe God as our helper, eg. Psalms 10:14, 30:10, 54:4.).

Even if Genesis 2 tells us something about marriage, it does not tell us that marriage is for having children. The first responsibility of men and women, says Genesis 2, is to care for God’s creation. We (anthropocentric creatures that we are) think the story is all about us. It is not. It is about the earth first.’[5]

For Warner Genesis 1 is about procreation, but not marriage and Genesis 2 is about marriage, but not about procreation.

The problem with this reading of Genesis 1 and 2 is that it ignores the basic rule of biblical interpretation that you need to read biblical books as whole entities. Genesis 1 and 2 are part of a much bigger continuous narrative that extends all the way to Genesis 50 and so they have to be read together, and read in the light of this bigger narrative.

The major theme of the narrative contained in Genesis 1-50 is descent (which is why Genesis is structured round a series of genealogies[6]). Genesis is about how the people of Israel was formed by the descendants of Abraham in accordance with the promise made to Abraham by God in Genesis 12:1-3, a promise which is turn related to the promise of salvation through the seed of Eve in Genesis 3:15, which is turn related to God’s command to his human creatures to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ in Genesis 1:28. Genesis 2 has to be read in the light of this overall concern with the issue of descent.

In Genesis 1:28 God tells his male and female human creatures:

‘And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’’

In this verse having children and exercising dominion are not two separate commands, but two aspects of one command. It is by having children that the human race is able to fill the earth and subdue it and thus exercise dominion on behalf of God.

The story starting in Genesis 2 is about how this dual aspect command begins to be fulfilled in practice even in the face of human rebellion. The man Adam is put in the garden to begin to exercise dominion over God’s creation and verses 18-25 tell ‘the story of God’s creation of Eve as a suitable helper and companion for Adam.’ [7]

In these verses, as Warner suggests, the emphasis is on the companionate aspect of the relationship between Adam and Eve. Marriage is depicted as good in itself even though children are not (yet) on the scene.

However, the reader of Genesis who has read Genesis 1:28 is still left asking how the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ aspect of God’s command to his human creatures will be fulfilled, particularly since in Genesis 3:15 the idea that God’s purposes will be fulfilled through the begetting of children is once again emphasized.

Genesis 3:16 then supplies the answer by saying that it will come about through childbearing in the context of a relationship between husband and wife:

To the woman he said,
‘I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.’[8]

The situation outlined in this verse then comes to pass in Genesis 4:1-2, 25-6, 5:1-3 in which Adam and Eve (with the help of God) beget Cain, Abel and Seth (and then other sons and daughters 5:4) as the fruit of their marital relationship, with the line of Seth (which eventually leads to Abraham and his descendants) being the means by which the promise of redemption in 3:15 begins to come about after the murder of Abel by Cain.

What all this means is that in the bigger narrative concerning Adam and Eve running from Genesis 2:4 to 5-5 the first human couple begin to fulfil through their marriage both aspects of the dual command in Genesis 1:28. even in the conditions prevailing after the Fall. They are God’s image bearers exercising dominion and they are fruitful and multiply thus allowing God’s work to continue and expand even in the face of death.

As Jesus’ response to the question of divorce indicates (Matthew 19:3-12, Mark 10:2-12), the reason why we are told about Adam and Eve is not just out of antiquarian interest, but because they are the paradigm married couple who indicate how God created marriage to be.[9] It follows that the way in which Adam and Eve fulfil the creation mandate to be fruitful is to be viewed as a paradigm for all subsequent marriages (which is why, as we have said, Scripture views the begetting of children within marriage as the normal state of affairs – this is how God created things to be[10]).

To sum up: we need to read Genesis as whole and when we do we find that Adam and Eve, the paradigm married couple, fulfil Genesis 1:28 through their marital relationship and this establishes a God given pattern for human behaviour which the rest of the Bible (and the subsequent tradition of the Church) simply follows.

This being the case, even though a marital relationship between a husband and wife is a good in itself even without children because of the ‘mutual society, help, and comfort’[11] it provides, it is nonetheless the case that the procreation of children is an integral part of what marriage is for.

The case that same-sex relationships cannot be regarded as marriages both because they are between two people of the same sex and because they are inherently not procreative therefore still stands.

M B Davie 20.2.19




[1] Meg Warner ‘Elephants, Penguins, Procreation and Japanese Knotweed’ at

Elephants, Penguins, Procreation & Japanese Knotweed

[2] Martin Davie, Glorify God in your body (London: CEEC, 2018) p.154.

[3] Warner, art c it, emphasis in the original.

[4] Warner, art cit.

[5] Warner, art cit.

[6] See Stephen Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty (Nottingham: Apollos, 2003), pp. 55-56.

[7] Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, The Drama of Scripture (London: SPCK, 2006), p.16.

[8] For the interpretation of this verse see Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh – Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), pp. 58-80.

[9] If we ask why Jesus doesn’t say anything about children this is because this was not the issue at hand.

[10] In Genesis and throughout the Bible children are born out of wedlock, but in every case where this happens there are explicit or implicit indications that this is not how things are meant to be. See Davidson for a detailed discussion of therelevant verses.

[11] Book of Common Prayer marriage service.