by the Rt Revd David Gillett, Principal of Trinity College, Bristol (1988-1999) and former Bishop of Bolton (1999-2008)
This is a question I have been asked many times over the years – particularly by people in their teens to thirties who have recently become Christians. They have grown up knowing friends who are in same-sex relationships and, for them, this is part of the diversity of human love, partnership and marriage. I have heard many ask, ‘Why do some Christians make such a big issue of this? Some are gay, some are straight – surely God loves us all in the same way and blesses our relationships equally!’
It is, of course, a question much more painfully and urgently asked by our LGBT+ siblings who have been excluded in various ways by many within the Christian community – and often by the institution itself.
Such questions require a fresh look at the Bible
For an increasing number of Christians today this is not a question that needs asking, even by many in evangelical churches that are normally considered to hold to a non-inclusive view. As they, and I, study the Bible, we conclude that God wishes all to discover love and intimacy in the authenticity of how God has made us in our own unique individuality. And now, unlike in the ancient Near East, we understand that God creates us with different sexual orientations. Consequently, we now approach the Bible with a broader and different set of questions than believers and scholars of former ages.
It is time to move beyond the defensive answers often advanced about LGBT+ experience and relationships – time now to develop a positive presentation of the Bible and gay relationships.
Forsaking former prejudice
The traditional approach to the question of same-sex love has been to look at those 6 or so verses in the Bible where certain same-sex activities are forbidden in differing cultures, contexts and religious situations. This approach has an inbuilt prejudice at its very heart for, though the Bible has many more prohibitions about heterosexual activity in various situations, we do not begin with these prohibitions when we evaluate the purpose and wholeness of heterosexual love. This dichotomy between the methodology of examining heterosexuality as opposed to same-sex relationships belittles and dehumanizes gay people even before the question is asked. In studying the Scriptures, where we begin largely determines what answer we get.
A positive place to begin
Increasingly, I ask folk to begin by looking at the two famous examples in the Bible of love and relationship between two people of the same sex. Naomi with Ruth and David with Jonathan. Not that I am claiming that these relationships were explicitly sexual in their expression – though some do see this in the case of David and Jonathan. They are, however, logical places to begin when we are considering the value of both friendship and love between two people of the same sex. They reveal a quality of commitment and relationship which is part of our God-given humanity.
Naomi and Ruth commit themselves to an intergenerational and cross-cultural relationship, expressed in very strong covenantal language. ‘Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you.’ (Ruth 1.16f). Ruth’s words here are remarkable: they have lived on through the centuries as one of the most powerful expressions of commitment and loyalty in love. It is a relationship sworn on oath in the most solemn of ways.
The relationship between David and Jonathan uses a different set of words, but they are equally extravagant in the commitment they describe. ‘The soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul … Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armour, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.’ (1 Samuel 18.1-4). When Jonathan was slain in battle, David’s lament includes these moving words that reflect the nature of their relationship, ‘greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.’ (2 Samuel 1.26). These words reveal a depth, commitment, love and intimacy which is striking. The phrase, ‘passing the love of women’ is particularly noteworthy, given what we know of David’s sensual heterosexual love-life!
Often part of the ‘distaste’ that some feel about homosexual love is situated in such male-with-male intimate loving friendships which embarrass some men – or challenge their own and society’s view of masculinity. But just as we base our study of the Biblical view of heterosexual relationships in the positives in the Bible’s story, so it is only just and equitable to base same-sex relationships in the positive story.
Sex is a good gift of God for all, regardless of sexual orientation
Starting to approach the question of same-sex love in this more equitable way also avoids the tendency, so often present in differing communities, of going directly to laws that seek to control what people experience (and fear) as ‘different.’ This is where the Church has often begun, especially when it has wanted to exercise control – or was part of a community that valued rules above all else – or was concerned to be over-protective and to curb the freedom that God gives us in Christ – or even because it regarded sex in itself as somehow dangerous and uncontrollable.
This tendency throughout the history of the Church to surround sexual expression with so many prohibitions, cautions and caveats led for many centuries to the elevation of celibacy and virginity as higher callings than intimate faithful loving sexual relationships.
While this has largely disappeared in our culture in relation to heterosexual marriage this is still held out by many as the only acceptable way in same-sex relationships.
Yet the basis of God’s good creation is that sexual relationship is part of the very essence of God’s good gifts to the whole of humanity.
Reading Genesis chapter two inclusively
We rightly recognize that the Adam and Eve story in Genesis 2 is a picture of how a man and woman rejoice in their intimate sexual union as a central feature within their relationship – wholesome and enjoyable and worthy of celebration.
Knowing what we now know about sexual orientation, we pose a fresh – and inclusive -question to the story in Genesis 2. “How will a gay Adam whom God has made discover the partner ‘fit for him’?” He will naturally discover the answer for a wholesome, enjoyable and intimate sexual relationship with another man. It is a denial of God’s creative purposes to prohibit sexual expression to same-sex couples in their relationship while encouraging it between two of the opposite sex, as all are equally part of God’s good creation.
To some this may seem an illegitimate way of reading Genesis 2. But it flows directly from the question we now have to ask of the text given that we no longer see homosexuality as an illness or a lifestyle choice.
The Bible ceases to be a living word of God if we only ask it questions framed on the basis of its own historical and cultural context. For the Bible to be life-giving it must be in dialogue with the urgent questions of today.
No longer starting with the negative…
Returning briefly to the more traditional, but less equitable and relevant way of deciding on the nature of same-sex relationships – it is understandable and morally justified that there is condemnation of heterosexual men engaging in same-sex activities to fulfil their own lust, to debase others in war or who are in an inferior social position, or maybe even in pursuit of some religious sexual rite.
Until recently the Church accepted the commonplace idea that homosexuality was a perversion to be punished or an illness to be cured. Sadly, this is still the case in some churches and some countries. Now, thankfully our received understanding is that some by their very nature – as created in God’s image – are gay.
So now we react to passages like Romans 1.26f differently than if we look through the lens of illness, perversion and prohibition of difference. As Paul laments the blatant disregard for God and the subsequent descent into ignorance, idolatry and licentiousness, he evidences various debauched same-sex activities. (See Jonathan Tallon’s opening article in this series). Paul is not here issuing an apostolic evaluation of the permanent faithful same-sex loving relationships which we see with many of our LGBT+ friends. Rather, he is condemning salacious sexual experimentation, domination of slaves or minors, promiscuity and pagan cultic practices and prostitution.
The Gospel is good news for all
Now, as we ask different questions of the bible than we did when homosexuality was seen as an illness or a perversion, we cannot fail to notice that the Gospel speaks of God’s unfathomable love which Jesus offers equally to all with no mention being made of distinctions in sexuality.
Here I conclude with just three examples of how we now hear the Gospel addressing all people, whatever their sexuality.
Equally wholesome: ‘What God has called clean, you must not call profane.’ (Acts 10.15) Peter sees that what God creates as clean and acceptable must not be categorized as unclean or unacceptable, even if the law or religious tradition claims otherwise. Thankfully in our culture, we have mostly abandoned the previous suspicions that sex is a less than good and enjoyable gift of God. Now, we must abandon the unjust and unjustifiable categorization of LGBT+ people and their relationships as somehow less than fully wholesome. They are an equal part of the diversity of God’s good creation. Same-sex love is as natural, good and wholesome for gay and lesbian people as are male-female sexual relationships for the rest of us.
No Outsiders: ‘For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one, and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us…’ (Ephesians 2.14ff) For many there has been a painful division between ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ – as stark as that between Jew and Gentile was in the time of the New Testament. As then, so now the loving action of God in Christ breaks down that division. For us to seek to build such walls and treat others as ‘outsiders’ is to put the Gospel into reverse. The Gospel mandates us to be at the forefront of campaigning against homophobia and the open hostility which still reveals itself all too often. Many of us now see the importance of our joining with other Christians at Pride Marches to show the love and welcome with which we, and the Gospel, embrace our LGBT+ friends.
All one in Christ: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3.28) Paul here makes clear that all the inherited divisions within humanity which have marred our communities and given power to one group over another have no place within the community redeemed by Christ. For one part of God’s redeemed creation to diminish another part is to wound the very Body of Christ. The Church, if it is true to its very essence, must be at the forefront of treating LGBT+ people and their relationships with total equality. Where this is denied, the Gospel itself is diminished and robbed of its power, making the good news ‘bad news’ for many.
This message of full acceptance and inclusion affirms the value of same-sex couples. It forms the basis of how we can support and celebrate same-sex relations and equal marriage as an outworking of God’s will for the whole of his creation in all its wonderful diversity.
It is something which, without fear of disregarding the bible’s authority within the Church, we can proclaim as just, equitable and worthy of celebration!
About the Author
The Rt Revd David Gillett, former Bishop of Bolton writes: ‘As a Theologian-Pastor, my views, like many other Christians have developed over time since my M.Phil dissertation of 50 years ago explored approaches to sexuality in the bible. Since then I have been a lecturer at St John’s College, Nottingham and Principal of Trinity College Bristol, interspersed with ministry as youth worker, vicar, peace worker, and bishop. My academic/teaching interests are in the areas of Old Testament, World Religions and Spirituality.’
Thank you Bishop for your views, and biblical reflection, wiv is a refreshing light to all LGBTI folk, and all Christian folk. Both lay and ordained.
I am a piest, now 85 years old, who has lived through my life with the negative, angry vows in my gay condition.
But one enlightened priest at my ACCM told me as a gay man, I was the sort of person the church needs.
As a result God has given me ministry as a priest in his church since 1963, For which I thank God.
In addition God has given me or the last 18 years a wonderful partner, Robert.I
Fr John Emlyn
David, surely you are not being serious in this post? Surely you know how poor these readings of Ruth and Naomi and David and Jonathan are? Surely you have done at least some reading of decent commentaries, and have found clear refutations of these sexualised readings that impose modern concerns and culture on ancient texts? Surely….?
You are not really comparing the historic inclusion of the Gentiles, prophesied in the OT scriptures and a mark of the eschatological fulfilment of God’s promises, to the permission to allow same-sex sexual relations against the clear teaching of the texts? Surely you are not comparing gay sexuality to the gospel’s unifying of humanity in Jesus’ ‘one body’? Surely you are not including ‘gay’ as a class like ‘male’ and female’ in Gal 3?
Please tell me you are not being serious here…?
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I am greatly disappointed by the tone of Ian Paul’s comment. He adopts the well-known rhetorical device of suggesting that Bishop Gillett is not being serious, thereby suggesting that he is either a fool, or ignorant or misguided and that therefore his essay can be discredited. It is not respectful. Bishop Gillett offers a hermeneutic and a reading which is not the same as that of Dr. Paul but it is a perfectly reasonable one and one that should not be dismissed so cavalierly. I find it attractive myself. In this context, Professor Helen Bond’s reflection on Professor Mary Beard’s Edinburgh Gifford lectures is suggestive https://giffordsedinburgh.com/2019/06/05/post-series-reflections/#more-1523
‘Bishop Gillett offers a hermeneutic and a reading which is not the same as that of Dr. Paul but it is a perfectly reasonable one and one that should not be dismissed so cavalierly.’ I have not dismissed it cavalierly at all. I have repeated asked David since his previous post in January whether he has read the very well developed refutations to his suggestions, whether he has engaged with them, and what reply he might give.
He has refused to offer any defence of his own view in the light of serious objections to them.
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For the record, readers will understand that no contributor is under any obligation to respond to any post/comment. They are advised not to if they feel at any time goaded into doing so.
I stick to my epithet ‘cavalierly’. The tone you have adopted in this post is not such as to elicit a serious response from Bishop Gillett. If you really wanted him to offer a serious defence, you would have phrased your post differently but instead you belittle his essay and the thinking behind it. I found your post disrespectful and not conducive to open discussion. Jayne’s advice is judicious.
As I say above, I have invited a response numerous times before, including posting a lengthy and respectful assessment on my own website. https://www.psephizo.com/sexuality-2/evangelical-and-affirming-re-reading-genesis-2/ Do have a read of it.
In response to this, David Gillett has offered no comment. As a bishop in the Church, charged with teaching truth to his flock, I would really hope that he is able to offer some response to this careful, respectful assessment. It is a great pity that he is unwilling to do so.
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@Ian Paul… surely you missed the entire point of the lesson? That all of history is about the way in which the teachings are interpreted. Your interpretation comes from a place of judgement against homosexuality. The bishops interpretation comes from a place of celebration of love and diversity. I for one know which interpretation I believe to be the most valuable and in the spirit of God. That is that love created between any consenting adults is the embodiment of God. I feel sad if you are not willing to open your heart to considering this meaningful and well considered position.
@Ian HD: If that is the point of the lesson, then I think it is sadly mistaken. Of course interpretation makes a significant difference to how we read texts—but what texts mean is not reduced to an interpretation. Texts mean things, and good interpretation helps us understand what those texts mean; bad interpretation can hide the meaning—or even make the texts appear to mean things that they don’t mean, which I think is happening here. In the end, the test of any interpretation is: does the text accept or resist that interpretation?
If you are right, and the meaning of a text rests wholly in the interpretive assumptions of the readers, then we are no longer reading scripture any more—we are just listening to our own assumptions. And therefore the voice of God in Scripture is silenced.
I don’t come to the text ‘from a place of judgement against homosexuality’. I don’t have a view on ‘homosexuality’, except that I am not sure it really exists (like ‘heterosexuality’). And it would make life much easier for me to agree with David, in relation to my gay friends, the view of wider culture, and the current debate in the Church. But I come wanting to understand what the text of Scripture says, and then trying to understand how that might be applied in today’s world. And most respectable commentators (who take a range of views on the ethical question of same-sex relationships) believe that the text says something different from what David claims.
‘This is an issue of biblical authority. Despite much well-intentioned theological fancy footwork to the contrary, it is difficult to see the Bible as expressing anything else but disapproval of homosexual activity. (Diarmaid MacCulloch, “Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700”, p 705)” (MacCulloch is gay and thinks the Church is wrong…but he is honest.)
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You keep saying that MacCullloch and others are ‘honest’ because they think that the Bible (not the Church) disapproves old homosexual activity.
Do you believe that those who think the Bible never mentions homosexuality are ‘dishonest’?
Not at all. The Bible does not mention ‘homosexuality’, an idea which is a relatively modern conception. The Bible is primarily concerned with bodily forms, and with bodily acts. Biblical anthropology does not reify patterns of desire as far as I can see, and its narrative seems to reject the notion of construing human identity by means of ‘orientation’.
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I’m no theologian, but it seems to me that you might be able to infer whether a Biblical interpretation is correct or not from the behaviour of the people who believe it. That’s what made me think about homosexuality. Peter Akinola, the former Archbishop of Nigeria, came across as such an unpleasant person, I just didn’t want to be in his club. He may have said things that were right, but I would have hesitated to agree with him that rain was wet, in case someone thought I agreed with some of his vile pronouncements. If someone’s interpretation of the Bible leads to unloving behaviour, or giving succour to those who behave badly, then that interpretation has come adrift somewhere.
At first that sounds like a great argument, and I agree that there is no reason to be unpleasant.
But I also understand that people found Adolf Hitler a charming and personable man, who was kind to children and to animals—and vast numbers found his speech persuasive and empowering.
So perhaps it is not the best test after all…
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Ian, I agree that the Bible appears not to reify patterns of desire, indeed the narratives sometimes appear to queer them. But scripture does not reject sexual orientation. It has nothing to say on the matter.
Yes, I’d agree. And for that reason it bothers me not a wit whether people are ‘gay’ or ‘straight’. What matters according to Scripture in this regard is what we do with our bodies.
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Ian, You are concerned with what people do with their bodies. You place scripture above God’s created order. An order which clearly encompasses a rich range of sexual orientation, which is God given for love.
Fr John Emlyn
No, I am not claiming to be bothered by this. If you read what I say, I observe that this is Scripture’s concern.
As an Anglican, I believe that we look to Scripture, not the mixed and fallen world as we see it, for the revelation of God’s character and his loving intention for his world.
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Good, Ian. We agree again! Sex, like our other appetites and desires can be exploitative, greedy, cruel and faithless. It is not intrinsically any of those things if the partners are same sex. Nor intrinsically virtuous if they are mixed sex.
‘Sex, like our other appetites and desires can be exploitative, greedy, cruel and faithless.’ Yes, those are certainly things that make it sinful.
‘It is not intrinsically any of those things if the partners are same sex.’ No indeed. But scripture is not merely concerned with virtues (though it is concerned with those). It is also concerned with bodily form and the structure and ends (goals) of relationships. For example, casual sex need not be ‘exploitative, greedy, cruel and faithless’ and can be consensual, and precisely on those grounds Dale Martin argues that it can be ethical. Scripture disagrees.
‘Nor intrinsically virtuous if they are mixed sex.’ No indeed. And I have no interest in arguing that we are saved by heterosexuality.
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This is really such a misuse and manipulation of scripture, here to justify a mode of life that God does not accept, and which He considers wrong and damaging for the people involved in it, whom he has created, and loves. The bishop would like people to believe he is expressing kindness and love and acceptance for same sex attracted people, when in fact he is showing contempt for them in their condition, effectively trapping them in the the situation they find themselves in. Homosexuals are people who have been traumatised by fatherly neglect and lack of affection, or sexual abuse when young, which has altered and distorted natural sexuality, and they should be helped and restored to a natural way of life, not abandoned to the unnatural and destructive one they are in, and to which this ‘bishop’ condemns them. Shameful, and Gillett needs to repent, or at the least, keep quiet. To think this person was in charge of a Bible college.
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One can only be sorry for your state of mind, that you can wrote such narrow minded , hateful rubbish. Bishop Gillett needs to praised and thanked, as I have done for his wise words.
God created us in His own image, and from the order of creation we know the rich diversity of relationships, and creativity. The evidence is all around us, if we have the eyes to see.
All created beings are created and loved by God in their diversity
You should have watched, ‘Drag SOS’ yesterday evening, and seen the love and support folk have for each other, and helping folk to be as created them. Themselves
Might suggestt, you read the book written by Bishop Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool, entitled ‘The Table’.
Fr John Emlyn
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Just stumbled across this article, very interesting! Thought I’d add my own comments.
1) Dr Gillet, you use Galatians 3:28 to justify the inclusion of same sex couples. But is the wider point of that part of the book not saying that because we’re justified by faith not by keeping law/being Jewish, that all people can be included in God’s salvation? And therefore the message for us today that we don’t try to get right with God through our good works, but rather by trusting in Jesus? With respect, I don’t think Paul’s intention was on whether something is wrong or right, but of how we are saved. Paul also condemns slave traders a lot. Does your logic not also suggest that their condemnation is also no longer justified?
2) I note your reading of Genesis 2. Does your logic not also lead to this statement? ‘why would god prohibit for Adam and Eve to eat from one tree, while allowing them to eat from all the other trees?’ It is a denial of gods creative purposes to allow them to eat from some trees but not from others, as all are created equal? Throughout the bible God cares about sin, because it’s destructive. He prohibits things because he deeply loves us. A parent doesn’t let their children do anything they want, they have restrictions, because they deeply love their children
3) throughout the article, you seem imply that sex is an essential human right, and that to be denied sex is a betrayal of ones human nature, but Jesus (and paul) lived a fully human life, the fullest human life ever, and he never (as far as we know) had a sexual partner. Even if you argue that Jesus might have had a secret relationship, you can’t argue from scripture that sex, or even romantic relationships are an essential part of life in this world.
Jesus tells us that life in this world is so insignificant compared to Gods new creation, and he calls us to take up our crosses and lose our life now for his sake. Gay or straight, that will often mean sacrificing romantic pursuits now because the treasure of being with god in eternity is so much greater.
I hope I’ve been respectful. Please do get back if you have any issues.