Adopted by God the Father
- Written by: CLARE DEEVES
Theology from the Couch, a recent online event from Western Australia, featured a talk from Clare Deeves on the blessing of being adopted as God’s child in Christ. She was kind enough to let Essentials rework it into an article.
In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, ‘Our Father in heaven’, and in Ephesians 1 we read that in love God the Father ‘predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.’ There is a stunning change of place involved in this adoption. Think of what we were before God adopted us (whether we knew it or not): deserving of wrath, far away, without God and without hope in the world, slaves to sin. And it is God’s pleasure and will to adopt us! Now we may—and should!—call God our Father, and take our place with him, as his.
Three paths on the Bible and same-sex marriage
- Written by: Andrew Judd
Three paths on the Bible and same-sex marriage
Anglican synods have been debating and discussing issues of sexuality and especially the status of homosexual relationships. and will continue to do so. Andrew Judd seeks to describe the paths that are before us, and to recommend the path he sees as most faithful to God. Andrew is Associate Lecturer in Old Testament at Ridley College in Melbourne.
I find the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality a difficult topic to talk about. This is not because I think the Bible’s teaching on marriage and sexuality is especially unclear, but because its implications are so deeply personal. During last year’s discussions at Melbourne synod on issues of human sexuality, I felt a great concern for those dear friends who identify as gay or are exclusively same-sex attracted—some who I have long been sharing the gospel with, some who are beloved Christian brothers and sisters, some who were in the room. Coming together as a church to discuss this topic can be difficult and even painful, but it is important. Anglicans around the world are now being asked to decide whether to revise our standards of worship and doctrine to accommodate rapidly changing cultural attitudes to homosexuality in western countries. Our Constitution and the Thirty-Nine Articles give the power and responsibility to us as a national church to change our traditions and ceremonies in light of changing times, with only a single restriction: that nothing may be done that is contrary to the word of God (Article XXXIV). We must begin our conversation by seriously and humbly wrestling with Scripture, asking what the Bible teaches about God’s intention for our sexuality.
My purpose here is to support my fellow Anglicans in wrestling with this issue by offering a summary of the scholarly discussion over what the Bible teaches on homosexuality, and an explanation for why I believe the traditional path on marriage and sexuality is the one that Christ is calling us to take. As Christians have engaged with the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality, they have tended to take three main paths:
A. THE TRADITIONAL PATH
This view says that the Bible teaches that sex is designed for marriage between a man and a woman, and that we should do what the Bible says. Under the traditional view, sex is intended as part of God’s vision of lifelong marriage between one man and one woman. Western culture has become very skilled at separating what God has joined together: contraception allows sex without reproduction; reproductive technology means you can have children without sex; Tinder means you can have sex without relationship. But the traditional view stubbornly insists that sex, marriage and family are not things that humans invented; they are joined together with a particular purpose within the creator’s design for human relationships.
Anglicans teach doctrine through liturgy. Our first order marriage service establishes the three biblical purposes for marriage: 1) as a symbol of the union between Christ and his church, 2) for companionship, faithfulness and strength, and 3) to establish families within which children can be born and nurtured. This doctrine of marriage and its distinct purposes within creation is anchored in Genesis 2, which celebrates the archetypal account of the first marriage, between Adam and Eve. Sex is designed for marriage, because one of the things marriage is designed for is to enable humans to fulfil their task and blessing of filling and ruling the earth by growing families. God’s people are consistently called to honour the creator’s design by avoiding those sexual practices of other cultures that fall outside this purpose for marriage. Leviticus 18, for instance, tells Israelites to avoid any sexual activity outside God’s original design. Verse 22 gives the example of sex between two people of the same gender: ‘You shall not lie with a male as with a woman.’ This is not an arbitrary new rule just for Israel (in fact it applies to foreigners as well as Israelites), but an expression of the design established in the beginning.
This design for marriage is assumed by the New Testament. When Jesus is asked about a contemporary issue of marriage and sex, he answers based on the design principles established in Genesis (Mark 10:6–9). When Jesus uses the general term ‘sexual immorality’ in Matthew 15:19 this includes any sexual activity that is outside the creator’s design and hence unlawful for God’s people under the Jewish Torah. When Paul wants to give examples of sexual practices that fall outside this design, he explicitly refers back to the examples in Leviticus (1 Corinthians 6:9–11). While consensual homoerotic sex between adults was known and often celebrated in the ancient world, God’s people were called to be unashamedly different. The Old and New Testaments assume that sex between two people of the same gender is outside God’s intention and plan for marriage.
At the same time, the Bible does not condemn anyone for being attracted to the same sex, or for having a sexual orientation towards the same sex. Whether we are exclusively attracted to people of the same sex, or the opposite sex, the call for any follower of Jesus is the same: to honour and worship God with our body, to resist temptation as Jesus did (Hebrews 4:15), to flee sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 6:18), and to claim our situation as an opportunity to celebrate the kingdom to come. Christ does not call us to heterosexuality but to holiness.
B. THE REVISIONIST PATH
This view says we should do what the Bible says, but it turns out the Bible is actually positive, or at least neutral, about homosexual sex. We’ve been reading it wrong all along. This is a relatively new path, which has been around since 1980 when John Boswell published Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Boswell and his followers raise doubts about the traditional interpretation of a number of passages in the New Testament. In particular, they focus on the standard translations of two key Greek words (malakoi and arsenokoitai) which appear next to each other in 1 Corinthians 6:9–11 and are often translated separately as ‘male prostitutes, sodomites’ (NRSV) or together as ’men who have sex with men’ (ESV). Malakoi means ’soft’ and is traditionally understood in this context to refer to the passive male partners in a homosexual act. Arsenokoitai is a new word which doesn’t appear in any of the literature we have before Paul. Paul may have coined the term. It is made by putting two words together – man (arsen) and bed (koite) – to make the word ‘man-bedders’: men who take other men to bed for sex. Those on the revisionist path argue that the meanings of these words are in fact unclear and that the New Testament may be urging us to avoid only one particular type of homosexual sexual activity rather than homosexual sex in general. The suggestions for what that type of sex might be vary depending on whom you ask, but some theories are: exploitative relationships, such as sex between men and boys; or sex in the context of pagan temple prostitution; or homosexual sex between people who are really heterosexual (and so going against their nature): or even anal sex without a condom. A slightly broader argument is that first-century Jews like Paul had no concept or experience of homosexual orientation, or of consensual same-sex relationships, and so what they were condemning was something very different to the modern, exclusive, lesbian couple or gay couple.
This path has much to commend it. Those who are on it are genuinely seeking to understand what the Bible says and to put it into practice. Good scholarship has indeed shown that some of our traditional assumptions need revision: for example, translators were almost certainly wrong to use the traditional words ‘sodomites’ (NRSV) or ‘effeminates’ (KJV). The sin exemplified by Sodom (Genesis 19) is not homosexuality in the straightforward sense people sometimes assume. Homoeroticism is indeed one element in the story, but the concept of a settled sexual orientation and identity implied by the terms homosexual and heterosexual was completely foreign to most humans who lived before the twentieth century. The ancients had a far more fluid concept of sexual desire and practice than we do. So the revisionists are absolutely right that when we apply a text to our own situation, we need to be aware of the gap between our own context and the situation being spoken into.
The problem with the revisionist position, however, is that 40 years after Boswell’s exciting new hypothesis the evidence needed to prove his ideas just hasn’t arrived—in fact, it’s mostly gone the other way. The best scholarship on the historical and linguistic background for the words in Leviticus 18, 1 Corinthians 6 and Romans 1 still points to a basic meaning of men who practise homosexual sex.1 Even more significantly, when we move from narrow linguistic questions to consider Christianity’s theological and ethical vision of human relationships, Boswell and his followers struggle to get around the fact that only two ways of expressing our sexuality are ever celebrated in the Bible. The first is faithful lifelong marriage between a man and a woman which embodies the creation mandate to fill the earth. The second is chaste singleness within a community of deep love which embodies the kingdom to come, where marriage will be replaced with a new kind of intimacy. The revisionist path has an uphill battle to find space for other types of sexual activity within these two biblical visions of human relationships.
C. THE PROGRESSIVE PATH
This view says the Bible teaches that God’s purpose for sex is heterosexual marriage, but the Bible is wrong and needs updating. Those on the progressive path agree with those on the traditional path about what the Bible says. This view recognises that Jesus and Paul almost certainly assumed that homosexuality was contrary to God’s design for marriage— of course they did, they were first-century Jews! To the first Christians, who were all Jewish, homosexuality represented the parts of Greek and Roman culture that were most foreign to Israel’s distinctive ethics. This view, which is emerging as the consensus amongst secular scholars of ancient sexuality, sees the revisionist path as wishful thinking with little historical merit.2 However, these progressive voices depart from the traditional path on whether the Bible is right. They suggest that the Bible contains errors in its doctrine and morality at points, and so we can and should resist or even improve on those parts of it that do not sit comfortably with our modern values. The church wrote the Bible, and we can rewrite the Bible.
I admire those who hold this view for their honesty, and we agree with them about what the Bible says. However, I do not agree that we should privilege our own cultural views on the purpose of sexuality over the theology of creation and marriage which is consistently developed from Genesis to Jesus and has been championed by Christians everywhere throughout history. I hold grave concerns about rewriting those parts of Holy Scripture we find challenging. Walking away from Scripture as the authoritative word of God does not lead us closer to Jesus.
I believe that the biblical vision for human sexuality is clear. I also believe that it is beautiful, and that God’s commands are for our good as well as for his glory. The traditional path may be a hard one to travel, but it is the one we are called to take. It is a source of great joy and encouragement to me to share life together with the many gay, lesbian and same-sex attracted men and women in our churches who love Jesus and are quietly committed to following him on this path, trusting him with their whole lives—even, and perhaps especially, with their sex lives. The church as a whole can learn much from their example about what following Jesus looks like as we await his return. Jesus calls us to give up our lives, take up our cross, and follow him no matter the cost. If, for some of us, life has become a little too comfortable, a little too much like the world, incurring too little a cost, then we might look to these celibate gay, lesbian and same-sex attracted saints whose lives can serve as a living, breathing sermon, an example to follow, and a reminder not only of the cost of following Jesus but also that he is worth giving up anything to follow.
‘there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.’ (Mark 10:29)
1 See, for example: William Loader, “Reading Romans 1 on Homosexuality in Light of the Biblical/Jewish and Greco-Roman Perspectives of its Time”, ZNW 108.1 (2017): 119–149; Roy Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 241–242.
2 For a leading example see William Loader’s exhaustive study The New Testament on Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).
New Cranmer Society Synod Breakfast 2019
- Written by: Rhys Bezzant
In this talk from last year Rhys spoke of his work on the Doctrine Commission of General Synod, and its intersection with his own Christian walk.
What a privilege to have been asked to address the New Cranmer Breakfast. Apart from the year that I have been overseas, I think I have been to all of these since 1997. Were there any before then? Not just a privilege to speak but also to be in the company of friends and colleagues on the front line of ministry in Melbourne – synod for me is as much working out how to support you as it is voting and tweeting!
Of course I have been asked to speak about my work on the Doctrine Commission over the last couple of years, and perhaps I will sneak in some reflections on the Liturgy Commission as well for good measure. In both those forums it is an honour to represent Melbourne evangelicals, and in both forums I learn so much. Faculty at Ridley College find it hard to understand when I say that these Commissions are some of the best PD in my year. Where else do I sit down for a week and talk theology, and interact with the other side of the church and their assumptions and Biblical interpretation and ethics? Of course on the Liturgy Commission we don’t just do liturgy, but talk culture and language and theology and history, though not without some sharp moments along the way as we come across an impasse. I am the newest member of the Doctrine Commission and found myself in the middle of a book project already planned. My chapter on whether to bless same sex relationships was not on the original plan, and I had to argue that it was central to the debates in our church. I was told it was not part of the agenda, clearly proven wrong.
My chapter on whether to bless same sex relationships has tried to prosecute one point, namely that blessing in the Biblical story line is not pastoral support but is a theological recommendation. Blessing assumes alignment with the purposes of the creation, and being assured of God’s help to human beings to achieve that goal. It is profoundly eschatological. It is about promoting the good, the true and the beautiful, the great ends of human existence in God’s world. And when human beings have sinned, blessing is contrasted with cursing, the removal of God’s help and assurance, with the reminder that God doesn’t necessarily have to use us to achieve his purposes. Blessing is a theological recommendation: what is blessed must be constrained theologically as something that is part of God’s plans for all humankind. We use the language of blessing commonly to mean emotional support or personal encouragement, which is fine. Words morph in their semantic range over long periods, but when anchored in the Scriptural story line the word blessing is much more tightly defined.
Blessing is a theological recommendation not just pastoral affirmation.
Of course some of my liberal friends would argue that same sex intimacy is part of God’s good purposes for the world and that we have wrongly understood the Bible. Or some would argue that the Bible clearly speaks against same sex intimacy, but that the Bible is wrong. Both options I reject. It seems to me to require special pleading in both instances to come to those conclusions. The Bible is clear in speaking against same sex intimacy and in affirming marriage as between a man and a woman, to the exclusion of all others, with covenantal shape.
My chapter also speaks about Anglican liturgical norms, as we pray our doctrine. We must therefore exercise caution before putting something like blessing same sex relationships on paper, as it were, because in our church liturgy ends up taking on a status more than first intended. And Anglicans in their liturgy have been cautious in blessing anyway – the term is not used as much as we might think. Some wedding services do not contain the word, showing that it is not the essence of marriage. Blessing most often occurs in the Communion service, and I note that the blessing at the end of the service is to be paired with the absolution earlier in the service and the consecration of the elements at a later stage. Blessing assumes that we have repented of our sins, are enjoying unimpeded fellowship with the Lord, and are being sent out to take our part in God’s purposes for the world. It is not a stand along element. The priest alone does all three. Blessing assumes faith and repentance. Blessing assumes God has theological intentions for the world. Blessing reassures us that God has our back even when we are scattered in the world during the week. Blessing is not merely pastoral affirmation but a theological recommendation. We can’t get beyond this, though I note that recently one of my colleagues on the Doctrine Commission in the public media has presented the language of blessing in substantially different terms.
My chapter also tries to outline some pastoral responses to the thorny questions of pastoral care of same sex attracted members of the congregation, or of family members of members of the congregation. It wasn’t actually my brief, but it wasn’t going to appear elsewhere in the book, and given that I was denying blessing as merely pastoral affirmation, I think I needed to include it. The paragraphs on pastoral care remind us to welcome wherever we can though the language of inclusion should be used judiciously. We must be careful to use language wisely, not to react with fear to what we might find morally or aesthetically uncomfortable, to train the congregation to pursue honesty and accountability in matters of sexuality more generally, and to ask any same sex attracted individual how they might best be encouraged in their struggle against sin. Anyway, it is estimated that two and a half times as many same sex attracted people attend conservative churches than liberal ones, so it can’t easily be assumed that conservative churches are not friendly towards those whose identity is not straight. Legislating for same sex rights has not dealt with all the pastoral needs of those who identify as gay. Issues in pastoral care are deeper than simple affirmation.
And this is not just theory. As a same sex attracted man, I am passionate about making sure that another voice is heard in contemporary debates. When the bishops received our report, they gave the feedback that the book would have been strengthened had there been a voice for the LGBTI community included, which grieved me. Mine was that voice, though I did not include in my chapter my own testimony. I have been sharing my story with family and friends for forty years, but have always felt that I would be healthier and happier getting on with life and ministry with questions of sexuality on the back burner. From the moment when I became a Christian at 13, long before I knew any Anglicans, from Sydney or from Melbourne, I came to the conclusion from reading the Scriptures that same sex intimacy was not part of God’s plan for my flourishing, and that he had a better path. And my strategy to keep things on the back burner was chiefly successful. I overthink things, so I figured having to talk about sexuality in the church would take its toll. But things have changed in society, such that now it takes more effort not to say anything when embroiled in debates in church and society than to say something. I want to be able to care for people who want to remain faithful to the Biblical revelation and to cheer for them from the sidelines. I want to provide a model of what it means to be happy in celibacy: godliness with contentment is great gain, as I pray over each week. I want to be authentic with my students who prize authenticity in their leaders above almost all else. Their reactions over the last six month as I have confided in those whom I mentor has been extraordinarily gracious and supportive. Above all I want to praise God that I am fearfully and wonderfully made, and to know new depths in that claim.
Beyond the question of the theological account of homosexuality, the issues of same sex identity are significant amongst evangelicals. There are within our constituency disagreements on questions of identity despite common cause in promoting a traditional view of marriage. My own view is that same sex desire doesn’t define me, though it profoundly shapes me. Individual desires are neutral until we act on them, as James says: “When that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin” (2:15). We debate whether the word “gay” can be used of Christians, probably a hotter debate in the US than here. I personally do not use the word “gay,” as I have never been in a same sex intimate relationship, have never been part of the gay scene, never aspired to an identity outside of my identity as a son of God, beloved of the Father, cleansed by the Son, empowered by the Spirit. These are the categories I most cherish, though I suspect I won’t now be able to control how others choose to describe me. We were called upon in bold terms in Synod last year to stop speaking in terms of same sex attraction and instead to use the language of being gay, which I found highly imperialistic.
I am free to choose whatever language I want, and so should we as evangelicals too.
Evangelicals are supposed to be the judgmental ones, according to the media and common perceptions. And we should watch our tone in public debates, and think through how our views are being received. But I find it extraordinary that over many years sharing my story, and more recently writing hand-written letters to perhaps one hundred friends and colleagues, that there has never been even one moment of disdain or lovelessness. My evangelical friends have been without exception the epitome of kindness, support, love and care. Now it might be that I have chosen my friends well, or that Melbourne evangelicals aren’t known for their fundamentalist credentials. But I want to affirm those my dear friends who have gone out of their way to love me. I decided to make this statement here during Synod and at the New Cranmer breakfast as a way of thanking you in this safe space for your concern. It has not gone unnoticed, brothers and sisters. The Ridley Faculty and staff have proven to be a community of great moral integrity and pastoral concern. There is a lot of love at Ridley, which is what the Lord thinks we should be best known for anyway.
But I don’t want to make this speech about me. Our church is in great crisis. Like a cancer it has snuck up on us, growing slowly over many years. This debate on same sex relationships has split the church almost everywhere in the Anglican world. Though it is about sexuality on the surface, the deeper issue is Biblical authority and hermeneutics, or perhaps deeper still about the nature of sin and salvation. Some of my colleagues on the Doctrine Commission want to make the doctrine of the Trinity the only issue that would split the church, for to disagree about the Creeds is to tear at our common unity. I understand this position as far as it goes. But we have to remember that the doctrine of the Trinity is not just an elegant statement about theology, but was designed to defend the deity of the Son and the deity of the Spirit. These are the true first order issues. Our commitment as trinitarian Christians is not merely to the term homoousios, but to Jesus Christ as Lord of our life, as Lord of the church. His atoning death and powerful resurrection are good news for the world, including those who are same sex attracted. No wonder that Paul can say that “Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practise homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. 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.” (1 Cor 6:9-11). Sin and salvation are terms which define how we enter the Kingdom of God, such is the seriousness of this moment. So what should we do?
Whenever I have been embroiled in debates in the past, or concerned about the state of the church, which is after all, just about every day, my personal strategy has been to redouble my efforts to raise up new leaders for the church. When I studied at Ridley and faced the pain of theological reflection with other ordinands who I disagreed with on just about every point, I responded every Monday night for about twenty years to go up to Queen’s College and mentor a few students. In one way it felt such a powerless way of responding to heresy in the church, with so few results, in the short term at least. But I could come home each Monday night praying that the next generation of leaders in Melbourne would have more theological acumen, more love for the Lord, more skills for service, than others I was meeting. What should we do positively? Engage in Synod debates respectfully of course.
But more than this: we need to redouble our efforts to spot future leaders of the church. I am afraid to say that the largest parishes of Melbourne have not done well on this score in the last ten years, nor often the smaller ones. If we want to reform our church, the chief strategy must be to identify, encourage, sponsor, support and send your best to Ridley.
Which of our churches is paying the fees of prospective ordinands, or giving them a living allowance? Which of our parishes is giving financial support to Ridley when they don’t have students to send to us?
Which of our clergy are intentionally and regularly mentoring an individual to train them for future service?
Which of our churches when they send someone to Ridley immediately begins looking out for someone to send next year? Who will pastor our grandchildren? They are in your creche or youth group or on your parish council now. Synod debates certainly – leadership succession absolutely! Ridley is one of Melbourne’s great evangelical institutions, perhaps even the most effective strategy for multiplying Gospel witness in this city and beyond. I must call upon you to make every effort to cultivate leadership aspirants in your parish for the sake of the church.
How wonderful that our difficult debates on sexuality are really an opportunity to take stock, think again about theology, and to plan with new clarity for the renewal of our diocese and the national church beyond! May God bless our efforts this day for gospel unity and gospel witness and gospel advance!
COLLECT (FOR THE WEEK OF MY BIRTHDAY):
in your wisdom you have so ordered our earthly life
that we must walk by faith and not by sight:
Give us such trust in your fatherly care
that in the face of all perplexities
we may give proof of our faith
by the courage of our lives;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Marriage in the New Testament
- Written by: NATALIE ROSNER
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.
- Written by: Gavin Perkins
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.