Should we extend the boundaries of ‘gospel freedom’ in sexuality?

The Bishop of Bangor in the Church in Wales, Andy John, has written an Episcopal Letter outlining a theological and scriptural justification for marrying same-sex couples.

The letter is worthy of proper consideration because of its very fair and clear (albeit brief) exposition of both the conservative position and Bishop Andy’s own affirming position. Notably, the bishop avoids any of the unconvincing attempts sometimes made by proponents of a liberal view to construe scriptural texts in a way which changes their plain and accepted meaning. Bishop Andy is clear that he accepts the historic understanding of (and scholarly consensus on) these texts.

Instead of questioning the meaning of scriptural passages, the bishop appeals to ‘other sources of authority such as reason, scientific evidence and in serious dialogue with other disciplines’. This is not crude rationalistic liberalism, however, as an important step in his argument is that he sets out a biblical justification as to why scripture itself mandates us to go beyond it.

The heart of this argument is what the bishop calls Jesus’ ‘litmus test’ for ‘any claim to communion with God and grace’, which he says is ‘fruitfulness’ (see Matthew 7:16-17). Combining this with an appeal to the inclusion of the Gentiles in Acts 10 and 15, he argues that ‘there is a development of faith and belief even within the New Testament’. He points in particular to apparent discrepancies between the teaching of James and Paul, noting that ‘the very liberties St Paul asserts are now part of the gospel (Col. 2:20-21) are actually excluded by St James viz blood and the meat of strangled animals (Acts 15:20-21)’.

In this light, he asks: ‘Is it inappropriate for the church to ask whether the boundaries and limits of this new freedom have been properly explored and understood?’

From there the bishop gives a potted account of where earlier Christian understandings of what the Bible teaches have been overturned. Foremost is slavery: ‘The Bible,’ he says, ‘shows relative – and deeply problematic – ambivalence to slavery.’ New Testament teaching, he explains, while admittedly demurring from some of the cultural norms of the day, ‘falls far short of any condemnation of slavery’. This deficit, he thinks, was addressed through later Christians ‘engaging with the political and cultural background of the Scriptures’ so as to develop ‘a contemporary attitude to the issue which respects Biblical authority while allowing a fuller perspective to emerge.’ It is evident (though unstated) that the bishop regards his affirming view of same-sex couples to be justified in the same way.

Women’s ministry is also included in his list. ‘On the whole,’ he says, ‘the New Testament is robust in denying any clear leadership role for women in the Church.’ Yet now the Church recognises that ‘grace is given not on the basis of biology but on the basis of calling’. He also adds in issues of divorce, usury, and even ‘a world view which sees heaven as ‘up there’ and hell ‘down there’’.

Learning from these examples, he concludes, it is now time for the Church to include fully ‘without distinction those who commit to permanent loving unions with a person of the same sex,’ including through marrying them.

It needs to be said before going any further that this, in my view, is an example of the most compelling sort of theological and scriptural argument for the affirming position. It avoids claiming scripture does not say what it clearly does, while still offering theological arguments for change grounded in scriptural teaching and narrative. If same-sex marriage can be justified theologically and biblically, this I believe is the kind of argument that will do it. In that sense, the bishop has chosen his justification well. But does it succeed?

The core of the argument is the contention that in certain other matters – slavery, women, divorce, usury, cosmology – the church no longer follows the plain meaning of scripture. It has, rather, like Peter who ‘hears the voice of God overthrowing the old Levitical code’ in Acts 10, received from God a new way of understanding the issues which sets aside old cultural paradigms, even those set out in scripture. However, this development of doctrine away from the plain teaching of scripture is, the argument runs, itself grounded in and mandated by scripture, so scriptural authority is not thereby abandoned.

A difficulty in responding to this argument is that it is actually a cluster of arguments all rolled into one to make an overarching point. It includes, for example, claims about what is going on in Acts 10 with the inclusion of the Gentiles, how that relates to Old Testament prophecy, and the compatibility of James’ and Paul’s teaching on the matter. It incorporates claims about what the Bible says about slavery and Christian attitudes to slavery through history, and how the modern view relates to biblical teaching. It adds in claims about what the Bible says about women’s ministry and why many churches have changed their teaching on this, and similarly with divorce, usury and cosmology. For the argument to work all of these, or at least some of them, must be examples of where the church has set aside the plain meaning of scripture through appeal to ‘other sources of authority’. Is this in fact the case?

While it may be tempting for those who wish to see church teaching changed to regard them in this way, the answer must be no. We can see this even before we look at the specific issues (as we will do in a moment) for the simple reason that if it was the case the church would never have accepted the changes. Until very recent years all mainstream churches recognised the authority of Holy Scripture as supreme and would not have countenanced anything which was deemed contrary to it. The most basic error in Bishop Andy’s argument, therefore, is the mistaken historical claim that on previous matters where a change of church teaching is evident what happened was the church set aside the plain teaching of scripture because of what it had learned from ‘other sources of authority’. On slavery, on women’s ministry, on divorce, and on usury, when church teaching changed it was because of a new appreciation of what scripture teaches, not because the church deemed itself to be setting aside scriptural teaching in favour of ‘other sources of authority’.

Let us look, then, in more detail at the specific issues Bishop Andy raises in his letter.

Concerning the inclusion of the Gentiles in Acts 10 and 15, it is clear that this was not unanticipated for the church, but was foreshadowed in Jesus’ own ministry and teaching (see Mark 7), as well as in Old Testament prophecy. In terms of the supposed development in the New Testament between the teaching of James and Paul, in fact the common view is that the primary aim of the Jerusalem Council’s ban on Gentile Christians eating blood and the meat of strangled animals was out of consideration for the consciences of Jewish Christians, to avoid divisive scandal in the early church. This theme of consideration for the consciences of others, especially in relation to dietary regulation, is also a theme of Paul’s teaching, as seen in Romans 14. The Jerusalem Council’s ban on sexual immorality is of a different kind, however, as this is a basic moral teaching repeated throughout the New Testament. Thus the apparent development of teaching within the New Testament turns out to be illusory.

Concerning slavery, it ought to be acknowledged that the Bible’s general acceptance of slavery – mitigating it rather than condemning it outright – is one of the more challenging moral issues faced by defenders of scripture. However, it needs to be borne in mind that it was to a large extent Christians quoting and animated by scripture who abolished the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery in Christian countries in the 18th and 19th centuries. In doing so, they did not take themselves to be contravening the teaching of scripture, and in their disputes with other Christians who used scripture to defend slavery, they did not appeal to ‘other sources of authority’ to override scripture but stressed the true meaning of the texts against the false meanings being given by their opponents. The parallel Bishop Andy is looking for is therefore lacking.

Significant also is that in condemning slavery Christians are not disregarding any biblical teaching that approves of it. This is very different to the case of homosexuality, where there are specific prohibitions that must be set aside in order to reach an affirming position. In addition, there are numerous biblical passages in which the enslaved condition is regarded as an evil from which God seeks to rescue people, most notably the foundational Exodus narrative of Israel (see for example Exodus 6:6). By contrast, same-sex relationships are never described as a positive condition to which God would bring a person through blessing.

We should also take note of the following biblical texts regarding slavery:

  • In Exodus 21:2 and Leviticus 25:39-46 there is a ban on enslaving fellow Hebrews and a requirement to free any slaves injured through punishment (see also Jeremiah 34:8-22).
  • In 1 Corinthians 7:23 Paul teaches that Christians ought not to become slaves, for ‘you were bought with a price’.
  • In Colossians 3:11 there is taught the revolutionary basic equality of slave and free in Christ.
  • 1 Tim 1:10 includes slave trading in a list of sinful practices.
  • Philemon 1:16 mentions an apostolic request to free a runaway slave and treat him as a brother.

In terms of historical Christian attitudes to slavery, slavery has never been positively regarded by Christian thinkers but always held to be a product of a fallen world. The freeing of slaves was widely taught, including by Augustine, to be a virtuous and praiseworthy act. Gregory of Nyssa even went all the way and condemned slavery outright as inherently sinful – though his was a lone voice in the pre-modern era. Nonetheless, Christian peoples have frequently suppressed slavery, especially of fellow Christians, and sometimes abolished it, as England did in 1102. This was because they recognised that slavery was something from which God wanted to rescue people not to which he would consign them. There are no parallels at all here with homosexuality, since there is no positive scriptural teaching about homosexuality, and no Christian history of regarding it as something good to be welcomed. When Christians banned or suppressed slavery it is because they recognised the true implications of what scripture taught on it, whereas when Christians affirm same-sex sexual relationships it is because they set aside the plain teaching of scripture concerning them.

Similar remarks can be made about women’s ministry. While there are a couple of New Testament passages that appear to prohibit it (1 Corinthians 14:34-5 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12), there are other passages where women’s ministry appears to be welcomed, such as the reference to women praying and prophesying in the assembly in 1 Corinthians 11:5, and the numerous prominent women mentioned in Paul’s letters, such as Junia (Romans 16:7). Historic Christian practice is also somewhat mixed, with the proto-charismatic New Prophecy (Montanist) movement (as endorsed by Tertullian) of the 2nd and 3rd centuries including women’s ministry. Female religious, abbesses and saints have also played a prominent role throughout Christian history, albeit not on equal terms.

It is also important to note that women’s ministry is a matter of church ordering, not an ethical issue. Although the Roman Catholic Church regards church ordering to be a matter of divine revelation, Protestants generally have regarded the New Testament witness on church ordering to be mixed, and to allow that different forms of church ordering are acceptable (especially Episcopalian, Presbyterian and Congregationalist forms), reflecting in part a response to different cultural contexts. Certainly the New Testament witness on women’s ministry appears to be mixed, arguably reflecting both classical norms of female silence in public and a more egalitarian norm of full female participation in Spirit-filled gifting and service.

In any case, though, the important point is that when churches did come to accept women’s ministry on equal terms as men in the 20th century it was because they became convinced that scripture permitted it, not because they determined to set aside scripture in favour of ‘other sources of authority’.

Divorce, likewise, was accepted by churches because it was deemed to be consonant with scripture in certain circumstances. Jesus appears to permit divorce on certain grounds in Matthew 19:9, and scripturally based opposition to the Roman Catholic ban on divorce was a major issue at the Reformation (see, for instance, chapter 24 of the 1647 Westminster Confession).

Similarly on usury, Reformers such as John Calvin taught that usury was not contrary to scripture – and this was certainly not on the basis of setting aside scriptural teaching in favour of ‘other sources of authority’.

I am perplexed by Bishop Andy’s inclusion of cosmology as an issue where biblical teaching is supposed to have been set aside (is it just there to associate conservatives with ‘flat-earthers’?). The Bible does not really present heaven as above us and hell as below us save as one image among many, and such an idea has never been the teaching of major Christian thinkers.

All in all then, we see that Bishop Andy’s argument, while initially plausible perhaps, falls apart on closer examination. On none of the issues he mentions has the church changed its teaching by setting aside the plain meaning of scripture in favour of ‘other sources of authority’. This means the pattern he is wishing to follow is not there, and neither is it endorsed by scripture or church practice. The inclusion of the Gentiles is not a model for the affirmation of conduct that scripture prohibits, and there is nothing in the New Testament or Christian history to suggest it should be. Scripture does not mandate us to go beyond scripture, and any move in that direction must be regarded as a move away from Christian orthodoxy.

(Image: Andy John, Bishop of Bangor)

First published on Psephizo.

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