­
EFAC Australia

Essentials

This article is adapted from a talk given at The New Marriage Era Conference on 28 August 2019. The Conference was a collaboration of EFAC Australia, St Hilary’s Anglican Church, and the Peter Corney Training Centre.

Natalie Rosner is an Associate Minister at St Hilary’s, Kew and the Director of the Peter Corney Training Centre.

I want to begin by indicating that the scope of this article is around who marriage is for, how sexual relationships are viewed in the New Testament and how therefore we should think as Christians about marriage and sex in our current cultural context. That context is one where the attitudes of Australians to marriage have been shifting significantly for some time. To take one small example. Prior to 1999, more weddings were conducted in churches than by civil celebrants. But since 1999, the majority of weddings have been conducted by celebrants rather than by churches. And in 2015, 75% of marriages were conducted by civil celebrants. Australians are increasingly rejecting the church’s involvement in their marriages. The change in the legal definition of marriage to include same-sex marriage also reflects a gradual change in attitudes to marriage that’s taken place over some time, but obviously only had a legal impact after the postal survey in 2017. Certainly that legal change in the definition of marriage has precipitated much conversation among Christians about how we should now think about marriage. Clearly the traditional Christian view that marriage is between a man and a woman is no longer shared by a majority of Australians. So does this change in popular attitudes and in the legal definition of marriage mean that our Christian view of marriage must change too?

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

So first, let’s take a closer look at what we learn about marriage in the New Testament. We’re going to look at a number of key texts to help us here: one key text on marriage and then two others dealing with same-sex sexual activity. First, on marriage. Matthew 19, reading from verse 3.

“Some Pharisees came to him [Jesus] to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Here we see that Jesus goes back to Genesis 1 and 2, to the original nature and purpose of marriage in order to deal with the Pharisees’ question about divorce. Verse 8 makes it clear that divorce is a concession that came after sin entered the world in Genesis 3. Divorce was not part of God’s original design for marriage.

Rather, we see that God’s original design for marriage involved male and female in a monogamous, one flesh, life-long relationship.

Interestingly, Jesus quotes first from Genesis 1:27 to remind his listeners that God made humanity ‘male and female’. He then quotes from Genesis 2 and creates a logical consequence – God made humanity male and female and ‘for this reason’ a man and a woman are joined in marriage. The way Jesus puts these quotes from Genesis 1 and 2 together seems to indicate that the nature of marriage has a creational logic to it. The marriage relationship flows out of the nature of humanity as male and female. Because Jesus uses these creation texts from Genesis 1 and 2, it seems that they give a normative picture of what marriage is intended by God to be, rather than a descriptive picture that might then be open to variation. That is, one male and one female is an essential ingredient for a marriage. It’s helpful to notice that the ‘one flesh’ nature of marriage provides the only context for God-ordained sexual relationships in the Bible. The only positive context in the Bible for sexual relationships is within a male-female marriage relationship.

To test this statement, we’ll now look at the key texts in the New Testament that refer to same sex-sexual activity. First, Romans 1 and in particular verses 24-27. As well as looking at these verses in detail, I’ll also paint the flow of the passage from Romans 1:18 to 2:1. It’s an incredibly weighty passage. It begins with the assessment that all people have failed to give God the glory and thanks due to him as their creator. All have become fools and have worshipped idols rather than the immortal God. So God’s wrath is being made known to all people. The important point here is that everyone is in the same boat.

“Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.”

Because all of us have failed to honour God appropriately, God lets us suffer the consequences of our choice. We serve created things rather than God – our lives are driven by love for money, power, ambition, and sex, among other things. Sexual impurity is part of our world because we have individually and collectively dishonoured God.

“Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.”

So we see that a particular example of the sexual impurity that is part of our world as a result of humanity dishonouring God is that both women and men have exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. This description certainly refers to some kind of same-sex sexual activity and we’ll come back to this more fully in a moment.

But note that whatever the same-sex sins are understood to be here, Romans 1 gives no basis for singling these out as a special category of sin. Verses 28-32 go on to describe a wide range of sinful behaviour. This includes disobedience to parents, greed, envy and gossip as examples of humanity’s wickedness. When my husband Brian lived in Aberdeen for a number of years, he had a Christian friend who piloted helicopters for the North Sea oil rigs. This friend told Brian that if he had a co-pilot who was gay he would refuse to fly with him. This kind of homophobic attitude is completely ruled out by Romans 1 and 2. Romans 2:1 in particular makes it clear that there is no one among us who is in a position to judge others.

“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”

It’s important to be very clear that no matter who we are, we’re all in the very same boat in terms of our situation before God without Christ. We are all sinners who deserve God’s judgment.

This may seem like a long introduction. But the flow of Paul’s argument in Romans 1 and into Romans 2 is a helpful starting point as we think about marriage and sexual relationships. With this flow of thought in mind, let’s go back now to verses 26 and 27 of Romans 1. The key question is: what does the text mean when it talks about exchanging natural sexual relations for unnatural ones in both verses 26 and 27? Furthermore, what does verse 27 mean when it talks about men committing shameful acts with other men? Some argue that unnatural sexual relations are those that have no potential for procreation. Some argue that these verses are about heterosexuals who act against their own natural sexual orientation by engaging in homosexual acts. Some say the problem here is just excessive passion. But through this passage in Romans 1, there are clear thematic echoes of Genesis 1 (See Claire Smith in Marriage, Same-Sex Marriage and the Anglican Church of Australia, Essays from the Doctrine Commission, 145-146). Because of the links in Romans 1 to the creation account in Genesis 1, it seems most likely that when Paul writes about nature here, what he has in mind is the natural created order – the way God designed his world to work. Claire Smith’s conclusion here is a good summary:

‘Accordingly, the sexual relations that are ‘contrary to nature’ are those that are contrary to the created order and God’s purposes for it as revealed in Scripture. It is men and women doing with their own sex what God intended only to be done with the opposite sex and that within marriage, as the rest of Scripture makes clear.’ (Essays from the Doctrine Commission, 145-6)

With this initial conclusion in mind, let’s look next at 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. This is one of the passages to which Israel Folau alluded in his infamous Instagram post.

“Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

There are two words that Paul uses here that refer to same-sex sexual activity. Both of these words translate the phrase ‘men who have sex with men’ in the NIV translation. The first is the Greek word ‘malakoi’ which referred to a ‘soft’ or ‘effeminate person’. Used in this way it referred to the passive male partner in a same-sex sexual act. The second word Paul uses is one that he coined – it had never been used before. It’s made up of two words used in the Greek Old Testament in Leviticus 20:13, where God prohibits same-sex sexual activity. Paul puts these two words together in 1 Corithians 6:9 in a term that refers

to the active partner in male same-sex consensual acts. This includes consensual acts between adults and can’t be limited to cultic settings or pederasty. A number of translations translate these two words that Paul uses separately while others are like the NIV and put them together into one phrase. Paul uses this new term again in 1 Timothy 1:10, where it is translated (in the NIV) as ‘those practicing homosexuality’. Both 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 therefore include consensual same-sex sexual activity as being one of a number of different behaviours that are wrong according to God.

We’ve seen so far that Matthew 19 gives us a normative picture of marriage as a relationship between one male and one female. This relationship is the only positive context in which the Bible refers to sexual activity. When it comes to same-sex sexual activity, there is no positive affirmation of such activity in the Bible or in the New Testament and this section has covered the main verses that touch on this theme.

MIND THE GAP

Now that we’ve had an initial look at what the New Testament says about marriage, let’s Mind the Gap. I want to think for a short time about similarities and differences between the cultural context of the first century and our own world, with the implications those might have for our Christian understanding of marriage now.

Some argue that first century culture didn’t have the same experience that our culture now has of long term, consensual, loving and committed same-sex relationships. Hence Paul could not have been referring to such people in Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1. This reasoning then proposes that Paul was writing about same-sex sexual activity that was either pederast, or otherwise non-consensual as with a master and a slave, or else referred to uncontrolled promiscuity and licentiousness or to same-sex prostitution. However the historical evidence doesn’t seem to support these assertions. NT Wright refers in a podcast to the poet Juvenal and to Plato’s Symposium which is a discussion of love. Juvenal was a poet in the late first and early second centuries and he describes the gay scene in Rome. There was certainly evidence of powerful men exploiting boy slaves and other non-consensual same-sex sexual activity. But Juvenal’s descriptions are also very much a matter of some long term same-sex partnerships and also a description of men who take the female role in homosexual behaviour. Wright’s summary is that ‘there’s nothing that we know about actual behaviour that they didn’t know’. Plato’s Symposium was written a few hundred years before Paul and it also encompasses a range of same-sex relationships including long-term stable faithful partnerships. So the suggestion that same-sex sexual relationships in the first century were all exploitative and that now we have something different simply doesn’t work historically.

There are other writers who agree with NT Wright on the historical evidence that the ancient world was well aware of long term and faithful same-sex relationships, notions of same-sex marriage and same-sex sexual orientation. Both Claire Smith and Michael Stead refer to some of these writers in their chapters in the Essays from the Doctrine Commission. In this case, the cultural gap between the first century and ours seems to be less than we might first imagine. Paul was writing in a very similar context to our own when it comes to same-sex relationships. So it cannot then be argued that Paul wasn’t referring to long term stable same-sex relationships because first century culture was unaware of them.

Others argue that the Christian church has shifted since the first century on a number of other moral issues, and that we should follow suit on same-sex relationships and marriage. Classic examples of this argument are around slavery and roles of women in both marriage and ministry. Interestingly though, it’s not just cultural change between the first century and now that has provided the context for change in the church’s position on these two issues, but rather exegetical factors.

Slavery is never advocated in the New Testament, but rather described as an existing social institution in which both Christian slaves and masters are urged to behave in a godly manner so as to bring glory to Christ. In 1 Corinthians 7:21, slaves are urged: ‘Don’t let it trouble you – although if you can gain your freedom, do so.’ So in the case of slavery, there is justification in the New Testament to support slaves becoming free. As many of us know, it was William Wilberforce and other Christians who drove this cultural change, rather than the church responding to surrounding cultural change.

In the case of women, cultural change certainly seems to have been a catalyst for Christians to re-think their understanding of the Bible’s view of women’s roles in both marriage and ministry. Of course, there is no Christian consensus on these issues today however there is arguably biblical support for some shift from first century cultural attitudes when it comes to women. Let me give a quick example. In the first century, women were married at a very young age while they were virgins – in their early teens, and mostly married to much older and more experienced (including sexually experienced) men. In this context, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:2-4

“But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.”

This is clearly an equal view of sexual relations between a wife and her husband that was completely at odds with the patriarchal culture of the first century. This is then a good exegetical reason for a shift in how the church views the marriage relationship between men and women. And this is just one example among other exegetical issues that have led to conversations among Christians about women’s roles in marriage and ministry and some changes from first century norms. This is in contrast to same sex-sexual relations, where there is no Biblical warrant or any indication of support for same-sex sexual relations or same-sex marriage.

Michael Stead in his concluding essay in the Essays from the Doctrine Commission refers to Professor William Loader, who is a world-recognised expert on homosexuality in the New Testament and ancient world.

“Loader is convinced that Paul condemns homosexual practice, but notwithstanding this, he believes that the modern church should now embrace homosexual practice, because Paul simply got it wrong at this point. His understanding of scriptural authority allows him to do this...” (Essays, 320-303).

Referring to those who support same-sex marriage but hold to a high view of Scriptural authority, Loader says this: ‘we can only stand and wonder at the extraordinary manoeuvres which have been undertaken to re-read Paul as not condemning homosexual relations at all.’ (Essays, 303). If we accept Loader’s comment, that puts any shift the Anglican Church might make on same-sex marriage in a completely different category to shifts that have happened on slavery and women’s roles in marriage and ministry. A change on same-sex marriage would be a shift driven by a different view of biblical authority and hermeneutics rather than by biblical exegesis. While I don’t agree with all his conclusions, William Webb’s book Slaves, Women & Homosexuals. Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis is a helpful resource in this respect on these three issues.

JOIN THE DOTS

Now I’d like to briefly join the dots, thinking about a few related themes in the New Testament that have some bearing on how we think about marriage. Each of these themes indicates that our secular culture, as well as our Christian culture put too much emphasis on marriage relationships. That is because, in the case of Christians, we neglect other important biblical themes.

The first is the New Testament’s affirmation of celibate singleness. Marriage is not the only life choice available to us. Clearly Jesus was single and Paul was too. This should be ample validation and confirmation of the single Christian life. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul also reflects on singleness in a number of ways. In verses 8 and 9, Paul says to the unmarried and widows:

‘It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.’

Paul clearly recommends celibate singleness here, with the concession that if a person isn’t able to remain celibate, then they should marry. Later in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul recommends that those who are single should stay single ‘because the time is short’ (v29) and because ‘this world in its present form is passing away’ (v31). Paul urges an eternal perspective when we think about singleness and marriage, rather than a temporal one. Finally in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul makes it clear that those who are single have a greater opportunity to live ‘in undivided devotion to the Lord’ (v35) than do those who are married.

So the New Testament offers a high view of the single life and I want to encourage us to have this same view. I also want to recognise very clearly that there are some real challenges that face those who are single. Many single people would say that they haven’t chosen singleness deliberately but would rather be married. For same-sex attracted believers who have chosen to remain single out of obedience to Christ, there can be a sense of rejection by other Christians. There can be challenges around loneliness for single people. There can also be practical challenges such as finances, aging, holidays and more. Given the Bible’s high view of singleness, and simply out of brotherly and sisterly love, our churches should be working to better support single people.

Secondly, the New Testament is clear that marriage does not last into the new creation (Mark 12). Marriage is a symbol of the relationship between Christ and the church, so it becomes redundant once Christ and the church are fully united after Jesus’ return. Our greatest human allegiance is to Christ himself. And unlike marriage roles, other relationships between believers do last into the new creation. Perhaps one of the weaknesses of the church is that we put too much pressure and emphasis on marriage because we minimise our brotherly and sisterly bonds.

Thirdly, we live in an age of sexual saturation. NT Wright describes it this way: ‘Our culture is absolutely soaked to the bone in Aphrodite worship.’ Aphrodite was the Ancient Greek goddess of erotic love. Wright continues: ‘The idea that life without regular active sexual relationships is not worth living, that’s a modern lie.’ 

The New Testament has an incredibly counter cultural attitude towards desire. Not just sexual desire, but other desires as well. The desires for money (greed) and honour (pride) spring to mind. Against our post-modern framework that urges the necessary satisfaction of desire, the New Testament doesn’t just say no to these desires but calls us to satisfy our desires by redirecting them towards God and his Kingdom.

So as we’ve joined the dots, I urge us to conduct our conversations about same-sex marriage with the knowledge that God offers us more resources to think about marriage, and to manage singleness and desire than we are currently making the most of.

Let me conclude by acknowledging that there is real heartache and difficulty for many, many people around this issue of same-sex marriage.

This isn’t a theoretical conversation but a conversation that impacts our own lives or the lives of people that many of us know and love. As we continue to have this conversation, my prayer is that, in the words of Ephesians 4:15, ‘speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.

Making the gospels: Mystery or Conspiracy? 
Paul Barnett, Cascade, 2019

The question of how the four gospels came to be as they are is intriguing and important for Christians (well, for everyone, really, but certainly for Christians). Matthew, Mark, Luke and John present Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God, the ransom for many, the one who suffers, dies and rises from the dead according to the scriptures. The man they introduce breaks many rules of ordinary humanity, and the question is whether they paint a fair and faithful portrait of Jesus, or whether some more modest Jewish figure been transformed into the miracle-working redeemer of the gospels by some innocent or not-so-innocent process of exaggeration, embellishment, and exaltation. This pressing question is complicated by the fact that we have only hints (compared to what we might like to have) as to the process by which the gospels came to be as they are.

Paul Barnett has spent a career researching, thinking and writing about the earliest Christianity, from the life of Jesus to the completion of the New Testament and the close of the apostolic age. He has taken on the hard task of discovering what we can know about matters demanding ingenious historical detective work to bring into some view. He has also taken on those who would undermine the integrity of the New Testament as a reliable testimony to the true nature of the events and people in its pages. He was this year on the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, being made a Member of the Order of Australia for significant service to the Anglican Church of Australia. He is a prolific author, who has this year added a new title to his list of publications, namely Making the gospels: Mystery or Conspiracy?

The burden of this book is to probe the mystery of the process by which we came to have the four gospels of the New Testament. In doing this, Barnett argues that although this process may remain in many ways a mystery, it is implausible and ungrounded to believe that it involved a conspiracy of any sort. The idea that the gospels present a figure confected by Paul, or Mark, or later editors of Q is not credible, given what the historical evidence makes likely about the production of the gospels. In summary, Barnett argues that the role of the disciples as witnesses of the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus is to be taken seriously, and that we should respect the indications that the New Testament gives that its authors were committed to the faithful transmission of what the eyewitnesses had said. Neither the short period between Jesus and the gospels, nor the culture governing the transmission of the accounts of Jesus, make it plausible to suppose that great metamorphoses have been wrought upon the figure at the heart of these accounts.

One new conviction Barnett comes to in the writing of this book—a conclusion which takes him by surprise—is that Jesus most likely taught publicly in both Aramaic and Greek. In Chapter 19 he cites the work of Meyers and Strange who find that in the first century BC Aramaic declined and Greek gained ground even in country areas. The Twelve have Greek names among them (Philip, Simon and Andrew) and Jesus had conversations with Gentiles (the Syrophoenician women, the centurion, even Pilate) who probably had at best limited Aramaic. Jesus’ travels in the north and east of Galilee would make it natural for him to prefer speaking Greek in these places. Crowds came to him from Greek-speaking areas like the Decapolis, and the environs of Tyre and Sidon, and it would make sense for Jesus to teach in Greek for these hearers. The upshot of this is that Jesus’s teachings need not have existed originally only in Aramaic, and so they needed no subsequent process of translation into Greek for them to take the form they do in our gospels.

Barnett further notes the probable literacy (not illiteracy) of at least some of the disciples makes it plausible that accounts of Jesus’ teachings were ‘committed to writing in Greek from the earliest times’, beginning during the earthly ministry of Jesus itself (p. 93). This pair of conclusions relativises both the role of oral transmission of the accounts of Jesus, and of Aramaic as the medium of such transmission. This in turn means the written sources which underlie the gospels may be as close to the ministry of Jesus as any oral streams of transmission in Aramaic that may also have carried the knowledge of Jesus to the gospel writers. Barnett acknowledges this is a controversial conclusion, and somewhat out of step with the recent focus on modes of oral transmission by Kenneth Bailey and James Dunn, but he’s arguing for the substantial importance of individual eyewitness accounts in written Greek.

Barnett covers a great deal of ground, and touches on verbal parallels to gospel material in the New Testament epistles, on the provenance and theologies of Mark, Q, M and L, on the use of Mark by Matthew and Luke, on the audiences the individual gospels appear attuned towards and a host of other issues. Throughout it all his constant theme is that while there is indeed mystery surrounding the process by which the gospels came to be, this in no way licences conspiracy theories. It should not be accepted that Jesus— imagined as a Jewish rabbi of reformist, charismatic or sapiential character— has been dishonourably repackaged as a dying and rising redeemer. ‘The earliest “traditions” are focussed on the redemptive Jesus.’ (p. 235)

The whole is written in vintage Barnett style, exhibiting familiarity with current scholarship and an independent development of thought. Close attention to particular texts across the New Testament and their interconnections alternates with broad awareness of the history, geography and culture of the ancient Mediterranean world in its Jewish, Hellenistic and Roman modes. Barnett writes to communicate with the general reader but does not make his content ‘lite’. In this as in many previous works, he connects the general reader to the scholarly world and the historical scene in a way that few others have done, certainly amongst Australian scholars. Here is a concise, up-to-date account of the production of the gospels by a seasoned scholar and passionate student of the history and literature surrounding the central figure of the New Testament: Jesus, whom this Paul also serves.

Ben Underwood, WA

If it was good for the first disciples to hold up the teaching of the Apostles against the rule of Scripture, then how do we make sure we commend rather than condemn those who do the same today?

A vital part of growing in maturity as a Christian is learning how to be more discerning with the teaching we receive. If we lack discernment then we can be like spiritual infants “tossed back and forth by the waves and blown here and there by every wind of teaching.” (Ephesians 4:14).

A child hears and trusts implicitly what their parents tell them about life and the world, but as they grow into maturity, they begin to rightly question all that they have learnt and received. If the parents’ teaching is good and right, the child ought to grow into adulthood and find themselves believing and knowing the same things they did as a child, but now with the added conviction of having tested them and found them true in a deeper, richer and more personal way. So it is with healthy growth into spiritual adulthood.

When the Apostle Paul taught the Jews of Berea about the Christ, they were commended for not just accepting the teaching, but they “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” (Acts 17:11) If that examination and testing is admirable when the one teaching is the Apostle Paul, how much more so when we hear the Word being taught today. They also tested this teaching, even though they had already “received the message with great eagerness.” They loved what they heard, it connected with them and the truth resonated in their hearts, but that was not enough. They would only be truly convinced if what was being taught by Paul was actually what the Word of God teaches.

It is only when the Word is faithfully taught that it is backed by the authority of God himself. Each word needs to be tested by the Word before it is received and applied to anyone else. A sermon, a book or a bible study can be true, wise and even helpful, but it only has the authority of God if God’s Word is being taught.

I recently heard a talk on 2 Corinthians 3 about the veil over Moses’ face after he had met with God and was bringing the people the Word. Paul’s point is that as new covenant believers we see and are transformed by the full glory of God in Christ in a way that was never true for Israel. The sermon however was all about the veils we put up to hide our true selves from each other in the way we talk, present ourselves and use social media. It was full of useful insights, but to claim the authority of God for those insights is dangerous and deceptive. A more honest approach would have been to simply present the content of the talk as a series of wise suggestions and make no implicit claim to the authority of God.

It is a dangerous thing to stand before the people of God and claim the authority of God. It is only safe to do so if you are speaking the words of God.

The way to safely navigate the path from spiritual infancy to maturity is through consistently hearing the truth spoken with loving authority within a church fellowship (Ephesians 4:15-16).

So as we encourage people to weigh truth of the teaching they hear urge them to pay attention to three F’s.

  • Foundation: is this word consistent with the foundation laid in God’s Word?
  • Fruit: will this word produce fruit consistent with the work of God’s Spirit?
  • Fellowship: seek the advice of wise saints in a healthy Christian fellowship.

Gavin Perkins

Marriage, Same Sex Marriage and the Anglican Church of Australia: Essays from the Doctrine Commission
The Doctrine Commission of the Anglican Church of Australia,
The Anglican Church of Australia, 2019

This book review title should be The book that should be read but cannot be fully recommended.

Background

In 2017 the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia, by motion, instructed its Doctrine Committee to “facilitate a respectful conversation in our church by means of a collection of essays on marriage and same sex relationships that explore scriptural and theological issues…”

To summarise the scope of the request: it sought to address Anglican Formularies, the exploration of state definitions of marriage and the church’s doctrine of marriage, our view of Scripture and the methods we use for coming to an understanding of them and the nature of our relationships where disagreement exists.

The outcome of the request was the production of the book, Marriage, Same Sex Marriage and the Anglican Church of Australia: Essays from the Doctrine Commission. This book was published in paperback in June and is currently free to download1.

The Relational Issue

The issues addressed in the book are not insignificant and, on paper, positions are easily expressed. However, one’s thinking on the issues cannot be divorced from all human relationships as expressed in the two great commandments, “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbour as yourself.” As the commands begin with an upward look to God so the outward look to others gathers importance. To neglect one is to fail the other. To miss the priority of the first unties us from a God-given accountability in our loving of others. If we are to glorify God, and if people are to enjoy him forever, then our discussion of something as close to us as our created, human sexuality requires more than human opinion or general observations, it requires God’s special revelation. As such the Scriptures are crucial to our discussion.

The Historical Issue

The problem for the Anglican Church of Australia as evidenced in the book and played out in the Anglican Communion around the world, is the disjunction between divine revelation and human opinion. Historically this problem is one of emphasis, expressed by the likes of Richard Hooker in terms of Scripture, tradition and reason, to which could be added experience. But even the history of the three – Scripture, Tradition and Reason – has suffered from the revisionists who in one breath declare Richard Hooker as their friend but in the next misrepresent the priority given by Hooker to the Scriptures over reason, tradition and experience. Bishop Michael Stead in the closing essay of the book offers an extended reflection on these four as he deals with the case against same sex marriage.

The Anglican Issue

There are eleven contributors to the book who represent divergent views on the issue of same sex marriage and blessing. The significance of these divergent views goes to the very core of a Christian Anglican identity. Most obviously, these divergent views on same sex marriage and blessings reveal divergent views on the authority of Scripture which is central to our Anglican identity. The 39 Articles of Religion highlight the place of the Scriptures as governing God’s church in all matters of faith and practice consistent with the reformation tenet of “sola Scriptura”, and most importantly, as defended by the Bible’s own internal witness to itself as God’s breathed out Word.2

Needless to say, divergent views of the Scriptures have led to divergent views on human sexuality that have inevitably caused a divide to occur across the global Anglican Communion. This divide has giving rise to the GAFCON movement and the establishment of new Anglican Dioceses, not recognised by Canterbury. These include Canada, Europe, Jamaica and most recently New Zealand and Polynesia. As the historical survey in the third essay makes clear the implications for the Australian Anglican Church are quite clear, “you can’t change the doctrine of the church and expect that people will continue to live in partnership, fellowship or communion”. It is why this book is so important. Its contributors expose the problem by their declared positions and as a result we, the readers, can reflect on the arguments presented and respond accordingly.

The Contents of the Book

After an introduction, the book has a series of essays to set the context, sketching out the history of these issues across the wider Anglican Church, and the highlighting the peculiarity of the situation of the Anglican Church of Australia, which has uniquely bound itself to the doctrine and principles of the Book of Common Prayer, Ordinal and 39 Articles.

These essays are followed by paired essays which respectively examine the arguments for and against samesex marriage, exploring hermeneutics, Old Testament, New Testament, the history of marriage and friendship.

Next a series of stand-alone essays on blessing, desire and godly disagreement. The final two essays seek to sum up the arguments for and against same-sex marriage.

The Key Issue

In the scope of this review, it is not possible to give a summary of all the arguments. Instead, I will focus on the one key issue which is the hinge on which the other essays turn.

One contributor to the book, the Rev. Dr Matthew Anstey, highlights what is key to the Church’s discussion of same sex marriage and blessing when he say, “that the role Scripture plays in the debate is where the most important differences lie.”3

To the uninitiated, the divergent views of Scripture may seem subtle but their outcomes are anything but subtle and the threat to the locus of authority in the church is of enormous concern.

So to the book itself. There is no substitute to reading the book for yourself and I acknowledge my subjectivity, which I hope is a Biblically informed one, in dealing with aspects of the book while hoping not to misrepresent its content.

The essays range in quality and complexity. While some papers stand alone, others provide a contributor’s view followed by another contributor’s critique. As a standalone essay, I found the Rev. Dr Rhys Bezzant’s essay on 'The Blessing of Same Sex Marriage' very instructive in offering a defence as to why we cannot bless same sex marriages. The most significant essays in the collection, however, centre on Scripture and hermeneutics. We could describe this section of the book and in particular Matthew Anstey’s essay and Mark Thompson’s response to it as the skeleton around which the discussion must be clothed. In terms of the church, the seriousness of skeletal damage will always be the bodily dysfunction that follows, so it is crucial to give the arguments our attention.

 To highlight the issue, it is worth listening to Anstey and Thompson.

The Rev Dr. Anstey, commenting on the evaluating of our doctrinal position on same sex marriage states, “The fact that such evaluation is occurring and books such as this are being written, speaks to the reality that the church is able to perceive and discern through the Spirit the work of God in the world and ‘decide for God’ in response to such discernment…”

As the essay proceeds the Rev.Dr Anstey is quite definitive, “…Let me be clear about my view from the outset, Scripture shows us how the people of God come to make moral and theological judgements rather than providing the substantive content of those judgements. Hence to be faithful to Scripture in this debate (as in all debates) does not mean we exegete Scripture and apply to living human experience a timeless moral-doctrinal precept (and such a so called ‘excavative’ approach is adopted by opponents to same sex marriage in this volume) but rather we seek to make our case for the doctrinal position we are arguing in dialogue with both Scripture and lived human experience.”

One must read all that the Rev Anstey writes to be fully cognizant of his position but to any exegete of the Scriptures who believes in the absolutes of God as set down, for example, in the Decalogue, his words are concerning.

In his response to the Rev. Dr Anstey’s essay, the Rev. Dr Mark Thompson takes quite a different theological stance when it comes to the Scriptures and I quote, “The 39 Articles, which include an endorsement of the Book of Homilies (Article XXXV) remains the confessional document of Anglicanism and so is included in the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia. The Articles provide us with a strong statement of the identity of Scripture as ‘God’s Word written’, the final authority of biblical teaching, the boundary condition of recognising and honouring the coherence and unity of biblical teaching and the stance of the reader: humility, prayerfulness, a concern for the glory of God and restraint in exposition.”

The outworking of Anstey’s hermeneutic is consistent with his revisionist view of the place of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience, just as the outworking of Thompson’s hermeneutic is demonstrated by sitting under the Bible’s authority not over it.  Anstey elevates the “Spirit”-led discernment of the individual above that of the Scriptures, and Thompson prioritises the Scriptures over the individual, who must sit under the Scriptures and surrender to them.

Anstey’s words, “…that the church is able to perceive and discern through the Spirit ‘the work of God in the world and “decide for God”…” are concerning in both what is said and not said. He separates Word and Spirit thus removing the objective basis on which to test the “spirit” of such discernment. By contrast Thompson sees the authority of the Spirit as expressed in the Word, thus holding the two together which is consistent with Christian Anglicanism as expressed in our Anglican formularies.

On personal reflection, a fallen humanity to “decide for God” under a spirit that cannot be tested seems like foolishness. The Rev. Dr Anstey’s essay could be accused of suggesting that God has inadequately communicated his will to us. It is no surprise that when we sit over God’s word and “decide for God” that humanity seeks to become a permission giver to things contrary to God’s will and not a servant of God’s will in calling people to repentance and faith. But equally when people begin to “decide for God” it is crucial to recognise that authority has moved from God to those who think they should decide. That would seem a recipe for authoritarian disaster that does not end in permissions but rule of law by the fallen.

Reflecting on both positions I see the distinctions best expressed by the words “interpret” and “understand.” The difference may be subtle but not unimportant.

Understanding the Scriptures requires you listen to what God has said and sit under his authority which requires the most careful exegesis of the texts of Scripture. Where a part of the Bible is unclear we do not ignore it but we look to the rest of the Bible to offer us further understanding. By contrast, interpreting the Scriptures makes you the authority over what God has said allowing outside influences such as tradition, reason and experience to determine your thoughts.

This is not just semantics. When we seek to understand, understanding submits our reason, tradition, and experience to God’s Word. When we seek to interpret, interpreting submits God’s word to our reason, traditions and experience. The outcomes can be significantly different when it comes to faith and practice.

Start with God and you start with the Almighty, the Sovereign, the Holy and Perfect. Start with humanity and every effort is flawed from the start by our creatureliness, weakness, and fallen nature. It is hardly surprising that when we get God wrong we get ourselves wrong. It is hardly surprising when we put ourselves in God’s place that we will compromise God’s absolutes.

Given that contrast, it can only be the sin of hubris that would have us pursuing interpretations that offer permissions to things God has spoken against rather than encouraging repentance and faith that comes with understanding God’s word.

Such hubris will heal no ills, trivialise sin, reduce Christ, profit no salvation and consign people to hell.

What a difference the truth understood makes. It puts God on his throne and straight-talks the problem of sin and the fallen nature of our humanity. By way of encouragement, the heavens proclaim his glory and his Word reveals the inspirational love of our maker and redeemer. It speaks to our reconciliation with God and offers the restoration of one’s person. In a lost and confused age the Christian gospel offers the repentant: new birth, justification by faith, atonement through propitiation and the substitutionary death of Christ and resurrection to eternal life. The Christian gospel does not offer permission to sin and warns of the judgement to come. For the repentant, God grants us the fellowship of the Holy Spirit to comfort and sustain us amidst the myriad temptations we face.

I would not normally recommend some of the essays in this book but they are educative in understanding why there are divisions in the Anglican Communion. Those divisions will inevitably impact the General Synod of our church in 2020 and our churches beyond. It is important for all God’s people to be informed and prepared should those who depart from the Scriptures force upon themselves their departure from the Christian Anglican Communion. Let us all pray for the humility to sit under God’s Word and repent such that the unity of God’s church would advance the mission of God for the salvation of the lost. Let us pray that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and then rightly love our neighbours as ourselves.

An encouragement

“Last eve I paused beside the blacksmith’s door,
And heard the anvil ring the vesper chime;
Then looking in, I saw upon the floor,
Old hammers, worn with beating years of time.
“‘How many anvils have you had,’ said I,
To wear and batter all these hammers so?’
‘Just one,’ said he, and then with twinkling eye,
‘The anvil wears the hammers out, you know.’
“And so, I thought, the Anvil of God’s Word
For ages skeptic blows have beat upon;
Yet, though the noise of falling blows was heard,
The Anvil is unharmed, the hammers gone.”

—Attributed to John Clifford

REFERENCES

1.https://www.broughtonpublishing.com.au/marriagedoctrineessays/
https://www.broughtonpublishing.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/marriagedoctrineessays.pdf

2. Articles of Religion 6, 19-22; 2 Timothy 3:16-17

3. Book p. 59

Bishop Rick Lewers, NSW

 

A Change of Heart 
Thomas Oden, IVP Academic, 2014

I’m getting tired of new books that pretend to be cutting edge Christian books and begin with Tom and Lucy looking out on their vegetable gardens and having some twee conversation. I’m also getting tired of books that have blurbs that give the impression this is the greatest book ever written but the content is empty and vacuous. Am I just getting old and grumpy – probably yes – but I’m also hungry for some substance.

One book that came as a pleasant weighty surprise is Sinclair Ferguson’s Some Pastors and Teachers. It’s a collection of many of Ferguson’s short articles linked to Owen, Calvin and others and since each chapter is about 6-8 pages long it can be read devotionally with great food for the mind and heart. If you have been waiting for something to fuel your faith this could be it.

Another Ferguson book worth reading is The Whole Christ which grapples with a moment in Scottish history when a young candidate for the ministry is asked if repentance is necessary to come to Christ. The young man said “yes” then changed his answer to “no” and was disqualified from entry. Men gathered around him to defend him and the book explains why. It introduces the knife-edge question as to whether people are hearing good news from us or not.

But another book that is a treat to read is A Change of Heart” by Thomas Oden. He was born in 1930 and died in 2016 – the first half of his life a liberal pastor and theologian – the second half a reformed academic. What makes the book so striking is that he exposes his own inner workings as he went down the liberal road – now writing as a repentant and orthodox man.

For example, he talks about reading his New Testament with the cross and resurrection deliberately pushed to the edge. His prayer life dried up and he found himself saying the creed in church with great difficulty. His new gospel became freedom from anxiety, guilt and boredom – the “theo” in theology had become a question mark.

“I loved the illusions… I imagined I was being critical and rational… I imagined I had a share in transforming human history… (but) I did not examine my own motives. The biblical words for this are egocentricity, arrogance and moral blindness” p.56.

The turning point came for Oden when an orthodox Jew accused him of being a lightweight – unfamiliar with the Founding Fathers of the Christian faith. He went back to the roots of the Church and found men with finer minds asking finer questions and giving finer answers. “I was amazed that the intergenerational wisdom of the ancient community of faith was completely accessible within modernity… I had been in love with modernity. Candidly I had been in love with heresy. Now I was waking up from this to meet a two thousand year stable memory… I came to trust the very orthodoxy I had once dismissed… I became even more relevant, not less relevant , to modern partners in dialogue… I found myself standing within the blessed presence of the communion of saints… the antiphonal choir with whom I was singing” p. 140.

Not only does Oden write humbly – but beautifully. It’s a delight to read how he expresses the faith in glorious terms.

The second half of his life takes him into many global opportunities – exposing the hypocrisy he knows so well but also building relationships across a wide spectrum of believers. I found his ecumenical spirit too generous for me but you can decide that one for yourself.

For those of us who have walked a pretty orthodox road most of our days and may find our doctrines getting familiar to the point of contempt this is a fresh set of eyes. For those who teach and toy with liberal scholarship – thinking your students cannot see the uselessness of your position – this is a devastatingly honest expose.

Simon Manchester, NSW

Each of us tends towards optimism or pessimism, and both present dangers. It is certainly possible to lose heart in ministry due to pessimism. The difficulties and trials can seem intractable, the fruit all too scarce, and we lose heart. It is also possible to lose heart in ministry due to over optimism. When the courageous vision collapses around us it is crushing, and we lose heart.

Paul knew all too well that Christian ministry has both its tribulations and triumphs. In 2 Corinthians 4 he makes it clear that losing heart in ministry is a very real phenomenon (2 Cor 4:1, 16). However, he is equally confident that he and his co-workers will not lose heart. Our aim here is to consider the theology and philosophy of ministry that fuelled Paul’s persistence in ministry.

What Paul holds out is a realistic optimism grounded in his understanding of the gospel itself, his own commission, and a clear grasp of the season of salvation history in which we live. He knew and expected the tribulations of ministry, but he also knew and discerned the glorious triumphs of ministry.

In 2 Corinthians, his most personal letter, the apostle Paul identifies death as a metaphor for the normal experience of ministry. His ministry is an ongoing slow death, but one that brings life to others:

We are afflicted in every way… always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Cor 4:8-12)

When facing the temptation to lose heart as he was confronted by disdain, division and discord, Paul could say to himself, “Of course it’s like this, ministry is death.” Ministry is a long death march that simultaneously and gloriously brings life, and we must not fall for the lie that it was ever supposed to be anything else. The normal reality of Christian ministry is to feel like a useless clay pot, and yet nevertheless look around and see signs of life because of the all surpassing power of God at work (2 Cor 4:7). For Paul the link between ministry and suffering goes back

to his commissioning. God declares through Ananias that Paul “is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16). He is transformed from the one actively engaged in causing suffering for those who bear the name of Christ, to the one who himself suffers for the name of Christ. His commission came with a cost, but a cost he is willing to bear.

It is Paul’s particular role as the initiator of the mission to the Gentiles and their apostle that especially connects him with suffering. Paul makes the link explicit at a crucial turning point of his first missionary journey in Acts 13. He quotes from one of Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant’ songs and claims that his ministry is a fulfilment of those prophecies. Paul and Barnabas’ heightened focus on Gentile mission was driven by theological and not just strategic or pragmatic considerations. In quoting from a servant song (Isa 49:6) Paul declares, “For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth’” (Acts 13:47). In Isaiah 49 the ‘you’ refers to the suffering servant, but here Paul and Barnabas take it as directly referring to them. It is what “the Lord has commanded us”—that is, Paul and his missionary coworkers. The commission to the servant has become for them a command to engage in Gentile mission. As he and Barnabas are engaged in that ministry of the servant, as they plant Gentile churches, Paul unequivocally sees them as fulfilling the ministry of the suffering servant to be a light for the nations and bring salvation to the ends of the earth. In his commission God set Paul apart to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth, and as he does the work of the servant, so he will also bear the stripes of the servant. Furthermore, God includes in that commission those who partner with Paul in the work.

As Paul addresses the Corinthian church he can say “we do not lose heart”, and this despite his “light momentary affliction” (2 Cor 4:16-17). A life dedicated to sharing the truth about Jesus to the ends of the earth is hard, but in the context of eternity Paul can brush aside these tribulations. Such things as being beaten up and whipped, thrown in prison and shipwrecked, abandoned by some of his closest friends and co-workers, watching as churches he worked hard to build are torn apart by false teachers, and seeing people abandon Jesus, are but light and momentary troubles (see 2 Cor 11:23-29).

It is instructive that the culmination of his list of sufferings is the “daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches”, for in the midst of the beatings and imprisonments it was Paul’s passionate burden for the health of the church that was his most abiding trial. When they faint, he faints; when they rejoice, he rejoices; and when they wander, he is downcast. And yet as we read on with Paul in 2 Corinthians 4, we see that in the face of eternity these trials are light and momentary; they are preparing us for “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor 4:17). It is on that reality that the believer must fix their eyes. Paul grounds his ministry philosophy and self-understanding on the figure of the suffering servant, and the way that frames his own experience in the light of the experience of Christ.

The tribulations of ministry are real, but temporary. The triumphs are often unseen, but they resound for eternity. And so we do not lose heart.

Subcategories

­