I have been following and involved in the discussion about same-sex relations since Buzz magazine published an article on it when I was 16. (I will leave you to guess how many years ago that was; anyone else remember Buzz? It eventually morphed into Christianity). It had a wonderfully euphemistic picture on the front cover of a magnet, with the caption ‘Do like poles attract?’
Since then it has been fascinating to see how the public debate has swung from one pole of argument to another. One axis of that has been the question of choice versus givenness. At times the argument in favour of accepting same-sex relations has been on the basis of personal choice; at others it has been on the basis that this is just the way some people are made. In Britain we are legally in the position of the latter; discrimination legislation categorises sexual orientation with race and sex as being of the essence of human identity, even though there is no scientific consensus on this, and some clear evidence that ‘orientation’ is not fixed.
There have also been significant movements amongst Christians on the role of the Bible in the discussion. I remember a few years ago reading the biblical resource section on the LGCM website exploring Paul’s theology. It ended with something like ‘Paul clearly condemned all same-sex relations—but equally clearly Paul was wrong.’ The current resources take a very different approach, arguing that Pauline and other biblical texts are not referring to what we would now call faithful same-sex relations.
Amongst evangelicals perhaps the best-known early attempt to argue that the Bible, when interpreted rightly, did allow space for the acceptance of same-sex relationships was the late Michael Vasey’s Strangers and Friends. It was not generally seen as offering a persuasive position, suggesting as it did that we needed to read the Old Testament in particular ‘symbolically.’ But it did signal a change of direction in the discussion, and allow a number who want to continue to call themselves ‘evangelical’ (that is, putting a high value on Scripture in shaping their understanding and ethical decision-making) to advocate acceptance of same-sex relations as something blessed by God and so to be blessed by the churches.
But at the same time it appears that other commentators have moved in the opposite direction. In reading William Loader’s Sexuality in the New Testament I was struck by how clear he was that the New Testament in general, and Paul in particular, stand against the acceptance of any kind of same-sex sexual activity. In his longer, more technical text The New Testament on Sexuality, he comments:
It is very possible that Paul knew of views which claimed some people had what we would call a homosexual orientation, though we cannot know for sure and certainly should not read our modern theories back into his world. If he did, it is more likely that, like other Jews, he would have rejected them out of hand….He would have stood more strongly under the influence of Jewish creation tradition which declares human beings male and female, to which may well even be alluding in 1.26-27, and so seen same-sex sexual acts by people (all of whom he deemed heterosexual in our terms) as flouting divine order. (p 323-4)
Loader is not alone in this assessment. In his short book debating the question with Robert Gagnon, Dan O Via comments:
Professor Gagnon and I are in substantial agreement that the biblical texts that deal specifically with homosexual practice condemn it unconditionally. However, on the question of what the church might or should make of this we diverge sharply. (p 93)
A notable exception to this strategy is James Brownson’s volume Bible, Gender and Sexuality, but he is swimming against the tide of commentators on both sides of the debate.
A number of these commentators, including Loader, link condemnation of same-sex relations with what they understand to be Paul’s gender hierarchy, and so want to reject both.
I have argued that Paul’s condemnation of homoeroticism, particularly female homoeroticism, reflects and helps to maintain a gender asymmetry based on female subordination. I hope that churches today, being apprised of the history that I have presented, will no longer teach Rom 1.26f as authoritative. (Bernadette J. Brooten, ‘Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism’, p 302)
I don’t think this is convincing, not least because there is a notable and consistent distance between Paul’s comment on same-sex relations and his comment on gender relations, and he never links the two. And I have argued extensively that Paul does not believe in gender hierarchy. But there is a strange point of connection between ‘revisionists’ and ultra-conservatives in linking the two issues.
This shift in the debate has implications for all parties in the discussion. For ‘revisionists’ the question now is what strategy to employ in arguing their case.
1. A popular line has been to say that the Leviticus texts are about cultic activity, and Paul condemns abusive same-sex relations, but had no knowledge of loving, stable same-sex relations or an understanding of ‘orientation.’ A number of commentators have disproved the ‘cultic’ argument, and there is now quite a strong consensus that the issue in Paul is not about the form of same-sex relations, but the fact that they go against the creation order in Genesis 1 and 2 of male and female in the image of God. Our knowledge of the first century attitudes has developed considerably (see the work of Robert Gagnon and others) and it appears there was a wide variety of views, including some quite close to contemporary arguments in favour of same-sex relations. In any case, as commentators highlight, Paul was not concerned with context or motivation, but with the acts themselves.
2. A second strategy has been to put the specific ethical issue in the wider context of the command to love another. Loader cites Andre du Toit’s position:
Basically we should accept that, while upholding this dialectical tension, if a choice must be made between the biblical position on homosexuality and the love commandment – and such a choice is often inevitable – the latter must receive precedence.
Note here that du Toit is agreeing (as Loader does) that the ‘biblical position on homosexuality’ involves a prohibition on same-sex sexual relations—but that, in our context, this is incompatible with the command to love. Via offers a variation of that in relation to John 10:
‘Abundant life’, because of its non-specificity, is all-encompassing. It can exclude no aspect of human life. And since God wills abundant life for all of God’s creation, God’s own, on what grounds could we deny that God wills abundant bodily (sexual) life for gays and lesbians as well as for heterosexuals?
This makes the wide-ranging assumption that ‘abundance of life’ means full sexual expression, which of course is denied by both Jesus’ and Paul’s singleness. But more striking is the fact that neither Jesus nor Paul seemed to think that loving another meant changing their sexual ethic to include sexual expression outside male-female marriage.
The only remaining option then is to join with those who think the Bible is wrong on this issue.
Where the Bible mentions homosexual behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct. (Walter Wink, “Homosexuality and the Bible”)
This is an issue of biblical authority. Despite much well-intentioned theological fancy footwork to the contrary, it is difficult to see the Bible as expressing anything else but disapproval of homosexual activity. (Diarmaid MacCulloch, “Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700”, p 705)
For the Church of England to revise its position, it would then need to agree that the Bible’s theological anthropology—what it means to be human in the light of who God is and what he does—is essentially mistaken in this area. This was not something it was prepared to do in relation to women’s ordination; consideration of biblical theology was an integral part of the decision-making process on that question, and it is hard to see that this would not be the case here.
But this situation also gives a problem for those (like me) believe that the Bible’s teaching that sex belongs in male-female marriage should shape church life. An increasing number in Britain appear to think this is unreasonable, including a large proportion of young people. Although the Church of England publicly engages in all sorts of other issues, there continues to be the strong impression that the Church is obsessed with sex, and that its current policy is nothing more than cruel and discriminatory.
It is worth putting this problem in a wider historical and global perspective. Is this the only or first issue on which Christians have been in danger of being out of step with their culture? Indeed, shouldn’t we be more worried if we are in step with culture? But unless the Church can find a form of dissent from culture combined with a persuasive pastoral apologetic, this continues to be a significant mission issue. Do we really want to make this the issue which inhibits people coming to faith?