by Rt Revd David Gillett, Principal of Trinity Theological College, Bristol (1989-1999) and is the former Bishop of Bolton
A group of evangelical bishops have recently written a letter asking for no change or development in our understanding of marriage in the forthcoming Bishops’ “Living in Love and Faith” document (aka the Teaching document). They recognise both that we face many challenges today about sexuality and marriage and also that, over the years, the way we express the tradition in various other areas has developed. In this instance, however, they call for there to be no development because the teaching of Scripture, as traditionally understood, has to be preserved.
At one time I would have agreed with them but, while still holding wholeheartedly to the fundamental importance and authority of Scripture, I believe we should be looking to expand our understanding of marriage in the light of the questions asked of those Scriptures by our understanding of sexuality and gender today.
At the outset, however, I happily concur with the fundamental point they make about the process we face: ‘As God’s people carefully re-read Scripture together, allowing it to teach us, we may be challenged where we are wrong and be led into deep learning, serious intellectual persuasion, and heart-felt repentance for past errors.’ Amen to that!
For many evangelicals the Bible has one clear meaning which concludes that the will of God can be read straight off from the pages of Scripture so that there is a correct answer to most major questions of ethics. Over the years many evangelicals have added what I believe is a deeper and more nuanced understanding to this starting point.
One major influence has been the approach of the American theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, and his championing of Narrative Theology. This reminds us that the Bible is first and foremost a story, the story of God’s involvement with humanity. It is the story which provides the framework for the whole of our understanding and way of life. Its authority is transformative, not just in the truths it reveals at first glance, but in the way it invites us to inhabit the story and to discover its life transforming power in our daily lives.
Walter Brueggemann, the renowned Old Testament scholar, also counsels us to believe that there is often more than one appropriate answer to an issue when we consider a particular verse or passage of the Bible. He asks us to see that many texts can rightly be interpreted in a variety of ways to offer different approaches which are valid for different people in different situations. He criticizes ‘the pervasive Western, Christian propensity to flatten, to refuse ambiguity, to lose density, and to give universalizing closure… Classical Western theological discourse, wants to overcome all ambiguity and give closure in the interest of certitude (‘Theology of the Old Testament’ 1997, page 81 & 82).
This more patient approach to the Scriptures adds a greater degree of humility to our theology. While believing in the authority and power of the bible no less, we are cautious not to use an all-too-certain interpretation of a bible verse or passage as a way of exercising power over others.
Many people, and in particular our LGBTI+ brothers and sisters have often experienced being silenced and excluded by a lack of such an approach. The traditional use of the six or so verses in the Bible, which in some way or another refer to same-sex activity, can be experienced as one group of Christians exercising power over LGBTI+ people and forbidding to them what God wills for the whole of humanity. This approach means we are careful not to censor another Christian who has arrived at a different way of following Christ. I may be wrong, or they may be wrong, however we need to hold in faith the fact that we may both be right! This approach fosters a greater generosity – in line with our all-generous God
As the 11 evangelical bishops say in their letter, ‘We recognise that the teaching of the church affects LGBTI+ people personally and deeply.’ My plea is that we allow for readings of the bible that respect LGBTI+ experience and how they are made in the image of God. As one gay friend of mine wrote, ‘We are all created by God to be who we are, including gays and lesbians. It’s just as natural and spiritually correct to be gay as it is to be left-handed.’ No doubt some LGBTI+ Christians will feel called to remain single as their way of following Christ, but some will feel called to be in a faithful loving intimate relationship as part of how they live out their Christian discipleship.
My LGBTI+ friends and I both read the same bible and are called to inhabit the same stories as we consider God’s will for our lives. We both, for instance, approach the paradigmatic story in Genesis 2 which describes the wonder of discovering our life’s partner, and we both feel drawn to the divine announcement, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone.’ Central to the story is the need to find a life partner who will be fully suitable to the needs of both and sustain them as they launch out on life together. At first there comes the almost comical process of looking around at different possible partners, and for some of us that can take a long time in reality – though all the ‘possibles’ in our list will be human!
As I read this story for myself, I am presented with a range of possible partners – as was Adam – and I am unsatisfied until I see the other human being – the one who became my wife – and I exclaim, ‘this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!’ For me, and for most others whom I know this encounter has been one of the most thrilling of all life’s discoveries.
This story invites us to is find someone who is equal to our needs, the same as me, not someone who is different (like the animals) but of the same stuff as Adam. The animals will not do – because they are different. For most of us this deepest fulfilment will be in a human of the opposite sex – but that is not so for all….
So, I listened as one of my gay friends told how he inhabits God’s story for himself and, like me, he is there in the garden asking God to find a partner who is fully equal to his needs. He wishes to discover mutual support that will sustain them both as a couple through the whole of their life’s journey together and with God. To begin with, God presents various possible partners to him – as in the original drama – and he sees all of these as inadequate for his deepest needs. He does not recognize one who will be a soul mate in whom depths of sexual intimacy can be found. Then after a while a man is presented to him who evokes a totally different level of recognition and response. This for him is what he has been longing for and he exclaims, ‘This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!’ They can become one. And, of course, the story is inhabited in their own way by other LGBTI+ people.
My prayer is that increasingly we will see that there are various ways to inhabit God’s story in the Bible. As this happens we can reach out to our LGBTI+ sisters and brothers in a wholly new way.
While preserving the tradition that marriage is a commitment to a faithful, life-long and intimate relationship between two people, we will now be able to see the tradition in a fully inclusive way – or, at the very least, hope that others who disagree will allow blessings of same sex marriages – thus leaving a variety of ways of living God’s story that recognizes the full humanity and equality of our LGBTI+ brothers and sisters.
This is part of a three-part series by Affirming Evangelicals.
Part 2 is by Rt Revd David Atkinson, former lecturer at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and former Bishop of Thetford
Part 3 is by the Revd David Runcorn, former lecturer at Trinity College, Bristol
Jayne Ozanne has written an additional blog entitled Bishops’ Letters and the Case for the Defence – “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord”
CEEC (Church of England Evangelical Council) responded to all these articles with a blog entitled “Why Conservatives Remain Conservative” on November 23rd 2018.
Thank you for this. After the hurt of the letter this is encouraging.
Thanks David for this considered response. I think you are right to cite the dangers of flattening out texts that Breuggemann gives us…but you appear to be doing just that with the text of Genesis 2.
As any decent commentator will point out, the shape of the second creation narrative has *twin* themes running through it, like two strands of DNA helically wound together—the themes of similarity *and* difference. The adam is to seek an ‘ezer kenegdo’, a ‘suitable helper’, who is both equal and opposite, just as Israel and Yahweh are different from one another, and yet Yahweh is ezer to Israel.
You are right that the animals are different but not equal, so they will not do…but another adam would be equal but not different, so will not do either. The implicit question in the narrative is why Adam’s aloneness could not simply be ended by the company of others who are identical–and the narrative assumes that it cannot.
And so the climax of the story is both, within the first narrative frame, ‘flesh of my flesh’, but also, within the narrators wider frame, ‘they will become one flesh’. The *different* flesh will become one, since the one primevally became different.
That is why the entire history of interpretation of this text, within the canon of Scripture, and for the vast majority of human history, has rightly seen this as a foundational text for male-female marriage–unity in difference, not simply either companionship or sex between any two human beings.
Are there particular textual grounds in which you see reason to avoid the ‘difference’ theme which is actually so prominent?
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Ian, you and I have had exchanges on this text before, so I guess it may be a question of agreeing to differ, but here is a brief response. (I did write and reply a little earlier but it seems to have disappeared into the ether – apologies if that version somehow reappears!)
I do not accept that the fundamental issue that is set up by the story is both similarity AND difference. The story poses the simple question, ‘animal or human’ for the partner that is to become ‘ezer kenegdo’, equal to the needs of the man. And that is what Adam recognises – the similarity, ‘this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.’ To expand – ‘Thank goodness it is not another one of those animals.’
Clearly as the man is heterosexual in his creation that partner is Eve, the woman. In recognising similarity the man, of course also joyfully recognises and discovers the difference that is there in God’s gracious gift and provision for his need. And for most of us that understandably describes the joyful experience of our marriage and a pattern that is accepted, received and expounded through the ages. One would expect no other because the question the Hebrew writer is addressing is that posed by the reality and experience of marriage within his society. In so doing, of course, he also clearly emphasises the one-on-one nature of that union (which is likely to have been part of his intention in writing to reject the practice of polygamy).
But modern understandings of sexuality and gender mean that we must ask a slightly different question of our text. ‘In the case of a man or woman who is gay by nature how can they respond to the divine desire that they should not be alone but discover their partner who will be equal to their need of union and intimacy?’ The answer is – ‘in a person of the other gender’. The gender of the partner is different from the outworking in the original telling of the story but is the logical one for the new question that is being asked of it – or in the way I like to describe it, this is the answer that emerges within God’s story when a gay person wanders in the garden …’
Davidkg, your questioning can be extended further. In the case of someone who is married, yet still feels somewhat alone, and wishes for simultaneous spouses, how can they respond to the divine desire that they should not be alone?
Thanks David…but you appear to be ignoring what the text actually says. Your reading here is challenged by three obstinate features of the text, and you really need to explain what you are doing with them.
First is the term you cite that opens this section of the narrative: the quest for an ‘ezer kenegdo’. It is an unusual phrase, used only here in the OT, and not the one we would expect to find if the issue were simply finding a companion to end loneliness (which would be kemohu and not kenegdo). Neged is not just alongside, facing, in relationship, (in) front, but more strongly, opposite to, corresponding to (BDB), over against, complementary to. As Wenham, citing Delitzsch, says, the relationship is not just ēzer (help, assistance, support alongside, but ēzer kenegdô: help alongside as from someone different, opposite, matching.
Secondly, given the need for this difference, the narrative follows the obvious course by bringing the animals to the Adam. The striking lacuna is the idea that God could simply form another Adam from the soil. The animals do not do the job (there is emphatic repetition of the phrase ever kenegdo) because, though different, they are not equal.
Thirdly, the climax of the story reveals its purpose: it is an aetiology seeking to explain in God’s creation why it is that these two unlikes find such striking union in marriage. The whole point of the story is to explain the rather strange phenomenon of this bond, and its purpose. It is again striking that it does not offer a parallel explanation for same-sex attraction, unlike the later aetiological myth in Plato’s Symposium. That is, it is not offering an explanation for *all* sexual attraction or bonding, but for this male-female one–and as you say, in some tension with the cultural norm of polygamy. It is this one relationship, claims the narrative, which is ‘holy, a gift of God in creation, which all should honour’.
You don’t appear to me to be offering any real engagement with these three important features of the text. Without such an engagement, I don’t see how your reading can claim in any sense to be ‘evangelical’, or even Anglican…or even a good reading of the text.
So how do you account for these prominent features? To claim the Adam here is ‘heterosexual’ or that people are ‘gay by nature’ so can simply be dropped into this narrative is to impose modern categories and assumptions that this text seems quite directly to resist.
One translation for “Adam” is “earth creature” that is not automatically male. And it could be that the binary came after the split of the earth creature into two. That doesn’t resolve the question of using the binary “husband” and “wife” but it does offer a less subservient view of the woman, as received by tradition. I would say, however, that there is no reason to interpret the binary as exclusive, as David says. Adopting the binary as God’s Will and inflicting pain on LGBTQIA folks is a CHOICE.
Yes, there is a debate as to whether the adam was in any meaningful sense ‘male’ prior to the creation of the woman, expressed in the 1970s and 80s by the disagreement on this between Phyllis Trible and David Clines.
But the narrative does not suggest that the sex binary is in this sense a choice; it is presented as a specific and intentional act of the creation of humanity by God which underlies the unique significance of the union of man and woman in the marriage covenant.
You might think the text is wrong here…but it is quite hard to read the text as saying anything other than this.
What that passage suggests to me is that the primacy of man over woman is not a given. And this lens makes this reading more harmonious with the first Creation Story where God made both male and female in God’s image. In the second story, God creates two cis-gendered heterosexual people out of the earth-creature, that is clear enough. That doesn’t automatically exclude all other people. Do you believe that the world was created in 6 days? If one subscribes to Scripture on that literal level, then I guess it is consistent to see the binary as a model for all time. It is a view some hold, and those people have to choose Scripture over science.
But if one subscribes to the idea of Scripture as revelation at levels beyond the literal, and believe that science is not inconsistent with God’s Creation, then it places us in a position to marvel at the story and how it points to our Creator as an entity who loves us and made us for love.
What doesn’t make sense to me is picking and choosing which bits to take literally from the pre-scientific era and use it as a model for all time, ignoring other bits. Especially when proposing to use these bits in a very hurtful way.
There’s much to glean from the “earth-creature” reading of the second Creation Story. Most notably is that it challenges the idea of women as subordinate to men.. It reveals that that bias is cultural and not a Scriptural given. It gives us every reason to question cultural norms and discern whether they are moral, just, and in keeping with the Way of Jesus. Peace.
thank you bishop David. Thank you. The World of God is above all the incarnated God. The World became flesh… not a book.
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Please, does this mean that a transgender person cannot enter the ministry? If so, how come that I had a revelation about someone in our congregation, who i hardly know, that he should apply for the ministry? I have never had this sort of experience, I did not expect it, I was not looking for it, but it came. I have never been so sure that God is calling this man to work in His name.
So God’s calling is now to be denied? Or am I just a silly old bat? Oh, the church, the church! I hold my head in my hands.
Heather, I cannot of cours comment on the particular case you describe but, in what I have written I see no reason to question the possibility of a trans person offering themselves for ordination. They would of course be subject to the discernment process like anyone else. I do, however, know and have happily worked alongside several trans priests over the past years.
There are trans people in ordained ministry (CofE). Evangelical Bishops presenting at least one saw no problem . After hanging around with trans people I can see many advantages
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Thank you Bishop David for your thoughtfully considered and respectful article. I am deeply heartened by your response, as well as your clarification in the responses to this article.
Although the following is not be a theological perspective, I would like David Gillett’s to clarify the part of his response to Ian Paul’s comment in which he wrote: ’In the case of a man or woman who is gay by nature how can they respond to the divine desire that they should not be alone but discover their partner who will be equal to their need of union and intimacy?’
The phrase ‘gay by nature’ seems to endorse an essentialist view of sexual identity essentialism. Yet, in ‘Expressive Ends: Understanding Conversion Therapy Bans’, noted Yale Prof. and LGBT advocate Marie-Amelie George, has explained how this concept only came to fore US civil liberties litigation for gay people as a more viable alternative to the failed Due Process (right to privacy) arguments in Bowers vs. Hardwick.
She wrote: “To constrain the impact of the decision, litigators changed their approach—instead of focusing their arguments on protecting privacy and sexual conduct, they emphasized that unfavorable treatment against gays and lesbians constituted discrimination based on their identity. The move in argumentation required litigators to present a universal model of gay and lesbian personhood, one that cast the engagement in same-sex sexual conduct as an indicator of a person’s essence.”
Despite being a tireless advocate of civil liberties for LGBT+ people, Prof. George wrote further: ”Requiring individuals’ sexual identities to be immutable implies that being LGBT would otherwise be invalid, with civil rights depending on an empirical premise that scientists may later prove incorrect. Scholars have also claimed that pursuing immutability may have subverted the movement’s interests, which should have challenged gendered and sexual categories rather than essentializing them. These objections are part of a larger set of queer critiques of LGBT legal strategies, which have included emphasizing conformity, stressing domesticity, and identifying how gays and lesbians were like their heterosexual counterparts in all but sexual object choice.”
American scholar, author and LGBT advocate, Joshua Gamson has described this essentialism as a political strategy, but not as scientific fact: “Lesbians and gay men have made themselves an effective force in this country over the past several decades largely by giving themselves what civil rights movements had: a public collective identity. Gay and lesbian social movements have built a quasi-ethnicity, complete with its own political and cultural institutions, festivals, neighborhoods, even its own flag.
Underlying that ethnicity is typically the notion that what gays and lesbians share—the anchor of minority status and minority rights claims—is the same fixed, natural essence, a self with same-sex desires. The shared oppression, these movements have forcefully claimed, is the denial of the freedoms and opportunities to actualize this self. In this ethnic/essentialist politic, clear categories of collective identity are necessary for successful resistance and political gain.”
While the ‘gay by nature’ paradigm has supported LGBT advocacy groups in framing sexual behaviour as a legal quasi-ethnicity, it does not serve the cause of truth to introduce such an essentialist notion, without qualification, as if it is a proven scientific fact.
Certainly, the research has repeatedly shown that environmental factors far outweigh the impact of any genetic or epigenetic correlations.
And correlation is not causation.
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I think you are confusing three different things
1. Whether there are people who experience (exclusive) same sex attraction in a similar way to the majority who experience only opposite sex attraction. It seems to me to be impossible in 2018 to argue against this. Most gay people know so by age 13, not because they are hedonist or have joined a political movement but because they are attracted to the same sex whilst most of their friends are attracted to the opposite sex.
2. To what extent orientation may change – largely irrelevant to the case being made here
3. The parameters required for a group to seek civil rights in the US legal system – completely irrelevant!
The fact that, as you say, “there are people who experience exclusive) same sex attraction in a similar way to the majority who experience only opposite sex attraction” does not make the case for sexual identity essentialism.
However, the case being made by David Gillett is very clearly based on sexual identity essentialism, especially since he has used the phrase ‘gay by nature’ cited a comparison with left-handedness.
On that basis, my question is far from irrelevant. So, perhaps, we can now both await his considered response.
I’m not sure what you mean by essentialism. I’m just saying that it very clearly is the case that there are people who are attracted to the same sex in the same way that most people are attracted to the opposite sex. I’m also saying that orientation change and American legal definitions are irrelevant to this inconvenient truth. It simply is not credible to claim that everyone is attracted to the opposite sex.
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There are clear biblical prohibitions against homosexuality. That is perfectly clear, although the current idea is that these prohibitions may be re-interpreted so that they are not opposed to homosexuality. That makes sense, doesn’t it? However the notion that Scripture may be “re-read” is beside the point. Can the historic, characteristic opposition of the Christian Church to homosexuality be overturned by “re-reading” Scripture. On what theological basis? Has the Church received a new Revelation? Or is it the real case that the dissident voices do not really believe the Church ever did have a Revelation form God in respect of this matter? If not, do the evangelical dissidents believe a new Revelation has been received by the Body of Christ. When? Where? What, courtesy of them?
Chris Greetings. Here is one response to your questions about how the church’s understand develops and even changes over time.
“Historically, Christian teaching changes and develops (particularly in and through mission and encountering new cultures). The church must always be reformed according to the Word of God, and God has “more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word”. As God’s people carefully re-read Scripture together, allowing it to teach us, we may be challenged where we are wrong and be led into deep learning, serious intellectual persuasion, and heart-felt repentance for past errors. Our longing is to be built up into the fullness of Jesus Christ our Lord whose way of living in love and faith we seek to follow.”
This is not from a quote from a revisionist or ‘liberal’. It is taken from the letter signed by the 11 Conservative Evangelical Bishops that these via articles have been responding to.
I agree with them.
Thank you, David. The Bishops’ letter is noteworthy on two grounds. They have chosen not to identify with the mass of African believers whose voice testifies to the gospel first brought to them by European Christians; instead, their solidarity is with their own class and ethnic group. Thus they flourish in shameful witness to the unbelieving world, for they have prized the religious heritage of Anglicanism over the gospel of their Lord and Saviour.
Insofar as the teaching of the institutional church and its leadership may have changed over the course of time eg. to advocate for war and slavery and/or homosexuality and divorce, this constitutes, again, a shameful witness before the unbelieving world. It does so because the advocates concerned have promoted as “Christian teaching” what has not been known by a special revelation from our Lord God, nor has it even been claimed thus by the professing Christians at fault. This is the predicament we are in today, and those who identify as evangelical, conservative or not, are, sadly, the most accountable. I say this because the degree of unbelief evident elsewhere in Anglicanism speaks for itself and simply arouses the mirth of unbelievers.
But Chris Those 11 Bishops are conservative evangelicals on these issues. They are precisely standing in solidarity with the conservative parts of the Anglican communion across the world at this point – African and elsewhere. So I really do not understand you at this point. Least of all your comment about siding with their own class and ethnic group.
But if you find their witness ‘shameful’ then – ‘Lord who can stand’!
No, opposition to homosexuality in Scripture is not clear at all. People have used Scripture to validate cultural biases, whether it’s homophobia, misogyny, support for slavery, anti-semitism, etc. People have also looked to Scripture for the Good News of Jesus Christ, who simply didn’t address LGBTQ+ issues at all. The moral imperative of Scripture is justice, mercy, and love. That Jesus’ harshest words were for the church for using the Law to put down others is a cautionary tale for anyone who would use the Good News to be bad news for particular people.
David, being a conservative evangelical is no saving grace in this matter. It is noteworthy that the 11 Bishops have distanced themselves from GAFCON (the relevant conservative part of the Anglican communion across the world), but I am not defending this group’s commitment to the institutions of Anglicanism. Who can stand, you ask? I would say, the body of Christ.
Chris They have not distanced themselves GAFCON. Their letter is participatory – or they would not have bothered to write.
Chris Thanks. You keep changing your line of argument.
The argument within the church for broadening the understanding of marriage is not secular at all. It is a theological debate that is carefully exploring scripture. I do not assume you would agree – but you appear to have missed the basis of the debate altogether if you think it is secular?
I am not sure what politeness has to do with any of this but, no, I don’t find this discussion embarrassing at all. It is very necessary. Thank you for engaging. I suspect we have got as far as we can.
David (Gillett) I wondered if you had any further thoughts on the three important issues I raised above (the meaning of kenegdo, the shape of the narrative, and the aetiology of male-female marriage) which strongly mitigate against sidelining the theme of difference in the way you are doing? Thanks.
Ian Can I ask you to clarify one thing? When you insist on the importance of ‘difference’ in relation to men and women what exactly are you referring to? Where are we to look for it? I get the physical biological differences – but beyond that? In my lifetime pretty well everything that society and church thought was ‘different’ about men and women – beyond biology – has been questioned and set aside. Furthermore I can think of same-sex couples who are strikingly different in terms of character or gifts and heterosexual couples who are so alike the word difference is hard to use of them at all. And does the Genesis creation story actually help us at all with this question? Thanks
David (I assume you are not David Gillett) I am not ‘insisting on the importance of difference’; I am trying to read the text well. The ‘difference’ I am referring to is the consistent, insistent and clear emphasis that is in the text, to which David G has still not offered any response.
You are quite right to point out that many supposed differences between men and women have turned out to be cultural rather than immutable or biological. But those suppositions are not actually based on a reading of Genesis 2, which I think it fairly agnostic about how such difference is manifested in culture.
The text simply highlights physical difference, and it is this simply, physical bodily difference that Paul appears to take up in Romans 1.
I do think that this will have a huge impact on culture and society. Clearly physical difference is necessary for sexual intercourse and procreation. But, for example, the simple bodily fact that the average man in the UK has nearly 50% greater musculature than the average women will make a difference to how nights feel in our cities to the two sexes. Men and women respond differently to a whole range of medications. And the idea that the differences in physical composition and hormones would have *no* impact on both the emotional, psychological and cognitive life of men and women is a pretty remarkable claim. It is countered by a whole range of anecdotal and research evidence.
David Gillett, I am still very interested to hear your response to the three important feature of the text which resist your reading of ‘similarity’ without difference.
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