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The biblical texts on same-sex unions

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 13.14.04My Grove booklet on the key biblical texts on same-sex unions is now out. You can order it from the Grove website, either as a printed booklet or as PDF.

I cover the debates around Gen 1 and 2, Gen 19, Judges 19, Leviticus 18 and 20 , Jesus and the gospels, Acts 15, Romans 1, 1 Cor 6 and 1 Tim 1. For each of these, I set out what I see as the ‘traditionalist’ and ‘revisionist’ readings of these texts (though these and any other terms are always problematic) and then evaluate them in the light of interpretation of the texts in question.

I hope that the booklet will serve to clear the air a little on the debate, by clarifying what the Bible does and does not say on this issue. Here is part of my introduction.


Why another Grove booklet on same-sex unions? There are numerous reasons. For one thing, since the first Grove Biblical booklet was published addressing this question some 15 years ago, the landscape of the debate has changed both significantly and remarkably rapidly. Secondly, this question has dominated media coverage of the Christian churches and their engagement with society. (Some of us have argued that there might be more important or even more urgent things to consider, but the media, and in particular social media, does not appear to agree.) Thirdly, this issue is often tied in together with the issue of women’s leadership in the church, and as the Church of England is moving decisively to ordain women as bishops, many are saying that the church’s position on same-sex unions is the next thing that must change.

But this leads to the fourth, and perhaps most important reason for a short, accessible overview of the biblical texts. Something quite strange has been happening in the public debate about same-sex unions. Although there is extensive literature on the question, and specifically on the issue of how we read the biblical texts, conclusions that once could be called well established now appear either to be ignored or forgotten.

For example, one leading advocate of a change to the church’s position, from what is described as an ‘evangelical’ perspective, argues that we should ignore the texts on sexual ethics in Leviticus 18 and 20 because we ignore the prohibition on eating shellfish and wearing clothes of mixed fibres. I had thought that this kind of ‘naïve’ (in the strict sense) reading of the Old Testament, which assumes that all commands have equal significance so must be accepted or rejected together, had been set aside in the debate. But it is continuing to make its presence felt in popular discussion.  Another example occurs in recent scholarly work; a text published only last year (Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality) questions the link between Paul’s term arsenokoitai in 1 Cor 6.9 and the Greek version of Lev 18.22—a link which I think most would regard as very well established (p 271). There is really no other plausible explanation for this term, which Paul appears to have coined himself.

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 13.14.04 - Version 2So the purpose of this booklet is not to bully people, nor to make a minority in the churches or society feel marginalized, nor to defend the mistreatment of people who experience same-sex attraction in previous generations or other cultures. It is, however, to set out the key texts, to explore concisely the issues in the interpretation of these texts, including engaging with important and recent commentators, and to see whether the biblical witness can offer any warrant for the affirmation of same-sex sexual union as a ‘way of life, hallowed by God’ on a par with the marriage of one man to one woman. This is not an attempt at an academic treatise, but aims to be relevant and accessible for church members and leaders who would like some guidance through this discussion. I have engaged both with academic and popular arguments, and sought to connect the two areas of discussion.


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49 Responses to The biblical texts on same-sex unions

  1. James Byron July 3, 2014 at 12:51 pm #

    Congrats on the work you’ve put into this.

    I do have a question about terminology: when you say, “… people who experience same-sex attraction …” instead of “gay people,” are you endorsing the argument outlined* by those who reject the category of sexual orientation? If so, how d’you think that perspective shaped your interpretation of the texts?

    * http://www.livingout.org/why-not-say-you-re-gay-

    • Ian Paul July 3, 2014 at 1:06 pm #

      James, thanks for the positive comment!

      And thanks for picking up the point. I think this is really tricky, and is one of the (numerous) areas where it is difficult to say anything without making assumptions.

      I do think the language of ‘gay people’ does (for most people) make the assumption that gay is a social, rather than a moral, category, so we talk about gay people in a similar way to talking about black people. In public discourse, it seems to me that this has now become unquestioned and almost unquestionable.

      But I am also aware of the difficulties felt by gay people with the reluctance of some on the other side of the debate to use this term for those reasons.

      I have had interesting conversations recently about the nature of our ‘experience.’ I draw on the work of Paul Ricoeur in viewing ‘experience’ not as something that ‘just is’ but as a constructed interpretation of the world and our place in it. This is true for all of us.

      The difficulty here is asking questions about the way we construct our own identity in relation to the way others construct their (possibly similar) experiences. There is no easy way here, but the debate does get locked down if each party insists that there’s is the only way to describe the world.

      • James Byron July 3, 2014 at 1:20 pm #

        Thanks for the thorough reply. 🙂

        As you rightly say, I raised the issue of wording to highlight the wider issue of how experience and worldview influence the interpretation of texts. I agree that we construct ourselves to an extent, but that construction is bounded and shaped by experiences over which we have no control.

        I can see how, coming from a perspective that views any sex outside heterosexual marriage to be a sin, you don’t want to endorse gay relationships, but “gay people” doesn’t, in itself, say anything about the ethics of sex. It just describes a sexual orientation, in the way that most gay people prefer. “Same-sex attraction” has a very specific connotation, and, in addition to celibacy groups like LivingOut, has been the term of choice for discredited gay-cure movements. I’m not for a second suggesting that you, or LivingOut, endorse them, just illustrating why SSA carries such baggage.

        If you find the word “gay” problematic, how about “homosexual” as a neutral(ish) alternative?

        • Ian Paul July 3, 2014 at 3:09 pm #

          Yes, I agree with you on the negative use by gay-cure movements, and I think one of the really significant shifts amongst ‘traditionalists’ is the increasing rejection of this notion and practice.

          But it isn’t the term which concerns but the way it is used in apposition. As you say ‘It just describes a sexual orientation’ but it is the notion of ‘orientation’ is increasingly felt to be problematic, philosophically and phenomenologically.

          Given that ‘orientation’ appears to be fluid, at least to some extent, over time, and given the complexities of all psycho-sexual dynamics, ‘those who experience same-sex attraction’ is a better phenomenological description.

          • James Byron July 3, 2014 at 5:20 pm #

            Felt to be problematic by whom? Psychologists? If so, what data are they working from?

            Sexual orientation may shift in some people, but if we’re not careful, this could be used to give false hope of change to lesbian and gay Christians who don’t feel called to celibacy.

          • David Cavanagh July 4, 2014 at 4:41 pm #

            The fluidity of sexual orientation could also be quite threatening to supposedly “straight” people!

  2. Etienne July 3, 2014 at 12:55 pm #

    “So the purpose of this booklet is not to bully people, nor to make a minority in the churches or society feel marginalized, nor to defend the mistreatment of people who experience same-sex attraction in previous generations or other cultures.”

    No, it’s just an attempt to persuade us that if we don’t obey your command to end our relationships and live the rest of our lives in celibate misery, we’ll spend eternity burning in hell.

    [remainder deleted]

    • James Byron July 3, 2014 at 1:08 pm #

      “Christians are all bullies.”

      Etienne, what about Christian universalists who affirm equality, and fight for it? They’re not denying anyone their rights, just the opposite, and they aren’t threatening anyone with hellfire. Are ministers like Nadia Bolz-Weber, and priests like Richard Holloway, fairly called bullies? I don’t believe they are.

      I’m not seeking to downplay how far the churches have to go, or the extent of their guilt in entrenching homophobia across the globe, not all Christians deserve to be tarred with the same brush.

      • Etienne July 4, 2014 at 1:30 pm #

        Internal disagreements and divisions are one of the reasons I’m so little convinced by Christianity.

        You can’t even agree which version of scripture to use, whether your God is physically present during the Eucharist, or even whether one or two parts of his tripartite nature produced the third part.

        The fact that you also can’t agree on the moral status of homosexuality undermines your credibility even further.

        [edited]

        • James Byron July 4, 2014 at 11:09 pm #

          Etienne, all branches of Christianity have changed since the religion’s birth. You’re therefore taking some aspects to be fundamental & beyond question. Why d’you assume that fundamentalism is normative?

          • Etienne July 5, 2014 at 12:45 am #

            I know it’s not the done thing, but I’m going to quote myself:

            “Christ talked about upholding the law exactly as it stood and gave us no revelation to indicate that sexual behaviour was an exception.”

        • Ian Paul July 7, 2014 at 2:45 pm #

          Etienne, again, edited. Feel free to contribute, but to the debate at hand. Thanks.

    • Ian Paul July 3, 2014 at 1:09 pm #

      I’ve deleted the rest of the comment which is really just mildly abusive rant.

      Actually, the point I am making in the booklet is *not* whether gay sex is right or wrong, but whether the biblical texts depict it so. There is then a second debate to be had about the place of the biblical text within Christian ethical discussion.

      I think this discussion in the Church is confused by people claiming ‘The Bible does not address the issue, so you can believe the Bible and advocate same-sex marriage.’ The booklet looks at whether this is credible as a claim.

      Plenty of people believe that Bible forbids same-sex unions, but think the Bible is wrong. I believe in fact you are one of them.

      • James Byron July 3, 2014 at 1:28 pm #

        This is a fair point, with the caveat that, for evangelicals, and, for that matter, many catholics and moderates, it hinges on what the Bible says. Affirming evangelicals like Steve Chalke, Rachel Held Evans, and now Vicky Beeching, don’t believe the Bible is wrong, but rather, its interpretation is.

        As you know, I do believe that your interpretation is right, and that the Bible is wrong, but if this moves onto a debate about how to apply the Bible, is there any possibility that you’d consider combining your interpretation of scripture with an affirmation of gay relationships?

        If not, surely it’s fair to say that, in effect, both questions are settled together?

        • Ian Paul July 3, 2014 at 3:16 pm #

          Both questions are settled together…but only for me and those in my position.

          If you and I are right, and the argument of the booklet holds, then the implication is that the ‘affirming evangelical’ position is actually incoherent, and that is what is at stake here.

          That means that the discussion is no longer clouded by the complexities and nuances of hermeneutics, which many find hard to follow, but by the larger question of whether Scripture can speak with moral authority to our contemporary scene.

      • Etienne July 4, 2014 at 2:29 pm #

        Quite frankly I can’t make out who supports what on this thread, but as I’m in a train and struggling to decipher small text on a smartphone screen that clearly wasn’t made for 49 year old eyes, perhaps it will make more sense when I’m in front of my computer tonight.

        In any case, my own belief is that yes, the only coherent Christian point of view is the traditional one, but no, I do not believe it to be true.

        And if you think my previous post was a rant, perhaps you need to understand that you’re playing with real people and real lives here. Should you ever manage to persuade me of the truth of your religion (which I think highly unlikely, but let’s say for argument’s sake you do), my entire life will come crashing down around my ears. I happen to love my life and my partner. They’re the center of my world. So I think I have the right to defend them with passion.

        Of course as befits what must be a peripheral issue for you, I’m sure you in your turn will persist in your usual dry, detached and pedagogical style. But I wonder, if this suddenly turned personal and someone’s abandoned husband/wife/partner came knocking on your door demanding to know why you’d turned their lover against them, how long would your Olympian calm last then?

        You’re interfering in real lives, Mr Paul. Expect emotions to run high. This is not a mere exercise in theological one-upmanship. If you “win” you destroy people’s lives. Do you expect them to be as calm about it as you so clearly are?

        What kind of a pastor are you?

  3. James Byron July 3, 2014 at 5:16 pm #

    The affirming evo position may still be viable, as biblical authority can take different forms.

    Many evangelicals who reject male headship accept that the clobber verses do indeed command women to subordinate themselves to men, but argue that the Bible contains competing egalitarian themes, which ultimately outweigh its patriarchal teaching. While the canon doesn’t contain passages that are explicitly pro-gay relationship, the implicit argument that parts of the Bible can be wrong, and an extension of the egalitarian principle to gay people, may both combine to make an affirming hermeneutic possible.

    To draw an analogy, the equal marriage victories in U.S. courts extend general principles (equal protection, substantive due process) to lesbian and gay couples. Even the most passionate advocate of marriage equality is unlikely to argue that the authors of state & federal constitutions supported their position. Rather, they argue that the principles they established can be extended in ways they couldn’t have foreseen, and may even have opposed. A “living constitution” vs. original intent.

    So too with scripture?

  4. David Cavanagh July 3, 2014 at 7:20 pm #

    Evangelical Christians have no problem with the idea that a text can take on meanings which its’ original human author would never have envisaged. However, there are limits to this principle, and I suspect most evangelicals (myself included) would be troubled by the suggestion that a biblical text can mean something which that author would have excluded.

    A comment above suggests the issues of women’s equality and the the acceptance (or not) of those engaged in homosexual relationship are linked.This is a common move in the debate about the Bible and Christian attitudes to same-sex relationships (though I had never before seen the term “clobber texts” used in connection with the issue of women’s equality……….perhaps I have had a very sheltered life?), but it is profoundly misleading.

    Most evangelicals who support women’s ministry do not do so because they believe competing themes outweigh patriarchal statements. Rather, they believe that so-called “clobber texts” have been misinterpreted. In most cases, such texts can be read as responding to immediate issues which are anchored in culture. Paul may say that women should be silent in the assembly (1 Corinthians 14:33b-34), but to make an absolute rule of this statement ignores the fact that the very same Paul in the very same letter insists that women should be “covered” when praying or prophesying (1 Corinthians 11:5-11)! Equally, Paul may have written that women should not be allowed to teach (1 Timothy 2:11-12), but to take this as a general rule is to ignore the terms in which Paul writes of Phoebe, Priscilla and Junia in Romans 16:1-7. Given these competing voices, I would argue that it is perfectly legitimate to appeal to Galatians 3:28 as expressing an overarching dynamic which questions apparently oppressive patriarchal texts and practices.

    No such appeal can properly be made in the case of same-sex relationships. There is no passage in the New Testament which presents a positive example of same-sex attraction and practice. Indeed, we can be sure that Paul would have opposed any such extension and application – and it is highly probable that the other New Testament authors would have been of the same mind.

    The position of “affirming evangelicals” therefore appears to be based on questionable exegesis of the texts – and that is before we get into the methodological issues!

    • Ian Paul July 3, 2014 at 10:47 pm #

      I agree David…though would go further in exploring past misinterpretation—itself the fruit of patriarchy.

      I Cor 11.15 clearly states that women do not need a covering ‘since they have [long] hair in place of [anti] a covering.’ Paul then emphasises that this is his teaching in all the churches—in other words, Corinthian culture must give way to a more universal principle. Fascinatingly, even conservative commentators admit that this is what the text can mean!

      but the point you make it quite right: unless Paul thought women could prophesy silently, he could not have meant that women should be silent. It is also worth noting that the so-called ‘clobber texts’ on women are universally acknowledged as obscure and difficult to interpret…not so with the text on same-sex relations.

  5. Jonathan Tallon July 3, 2014 at 7:31 pm #

    I suspect few evangelicals would phrase it the way you have, James. The issue wouldn’t be that ‘parts of the bible can be wrong’, so much as ‘parts of the Bible may have been right for then, but circumstances are different now’.

    This can be seen in the debates over subordination of women. Were the ‘clobber verses’ speaking for all time, or a particular context? Similarly slavery. Paul may command slaves to obey their masters; does this imply slavery is OK for all time, or was it just the particular first century context where there wasn’t an option (realistically) of no slavery?

    The other way that an affirming hermeneutic may occur is to say that there are differences not only in context, but also in the content of what is being talked about.

    This is what has happened with usury/money-lending. Both are about lending money at interest, but the church decided that, although there was overlap, the differences were such that money-lending was OK but usury wasn’t.

    Both context and content are still being debated. Paul definitely forbids some sort(s) of same-sex relationships. But what was the context then, and is it the same now? And is the type of relationship similar enough that the forbidding should apply, or is there enough difference that (like money-lending/usury) the injunctions don’t apply?

    As you say, James, the interaction with other biblical themes and issues (over justice, marginalisation, etc etc) is also crucial.

    I look forward to reading the booklet (and a thanks to Ian for his graft), but (having read parts of it on this blog) I don’t believe it will definitively answer these questions.

    • Ian Paul July 3, 2014 at 10:52 pm #

      Hope you enjoy it. In a booklet there is no space to engage in the wider comparisons…but these have been well rehearsed elsewhere, especially e.g. in Webb on slavery (and women)

  6. James Byron July 3, 2014 at 7:50 pm #

    Comprehensive stuff, David and Jonathan, sure Ian will thank you for the rebuttal, as do I.

    You’re right, the patriarchal verses are often claimed to be particular to Paul’s time & place, the problem with this being that they are framed as universal prohibitions. (Particularly 1 Timothy 2:12-15, which links a ban on women holding “authentein” back to Genesis.) The doctrines of biblical authority and harmonization make this a tough job for evangelicals; liberals who can just say that the Pastorals were forged & Corinthians interpolated have a much easier time of it.

    The biggest issue with an affirming hermeneutic is that, to date, the effort has mostly been a liberal enterprise, or at the least, a mainline one. They don’t share evangelicalism’s premises, and their work comes across as slapdash and half-hearted as a result. You know that most really think, “The Bible’s wrong,” but feel obliged to frame it in different terms.

    We are, I believe, very close to the point where affirming evangelicals are going to go in their own direction.

  7. Ian Paul July 3, 2014 at 11:00 pm #

    Can I also reiterate how much I appreciate the contributions of James, Jonathan, Etienne and others who clearly disagree with me. I continue to learn from your comments and engagement in this issue, and I am grateful that you continue to engage with someone you yourselves do not agree with.

    Thank you.

  8. David Cavanagh July 4, 2014 at 7:58 am #

    One aspect of the debate that has long concerned me is that there seems to be an inadequate understanding of sexuality’s function and role, and so the basic framework of the debate is lacking. There is very little reflection on the actual meaning of sexuality and desire – the “liberals” in favour of accepting same-sex relationships seem to just take it as read that sexuality is good (provided it is loving and consensual), while the “conservatives” seem to know what kinds of sexual expression we consider inadequate, but have no real account of what sexuality is for!

    I’m aware both sides of the debate may see that as a caricature. I understand, for instance, that there are some fine “conservative” accounts of sexuality: the problem is that they have not made it into the mainstream/public debate. As an example of that, I would say that although I consider myself quite theologically literate and read widely (to the extent that my elder daughter recently announced that I cannot have any theological book as a present for my fiftieth birthday……!), these accounts have passed me by.

    What I would love to see “conservatives” produce – and Grove Booklets publish? – is some kind of account with the depth and breadth of Rowan Williams’ “The Body’s Grace”. Although I disagree with the conclusions Williams implies about same-sex desire and relationships, I find his account of sexuality as a form of learning to see oneself as wanted, desired, the occasion of another’s delight and joy to be a deeply compelling reading. I would love to see a “conservative” account of the positive role of sexual desire and bliss, and why this is a part of God’s good creation, instituted before the Fall.

    In closing, I echo Ian’s comments about appreciating the contributions made by Etienne, James and Jonathan. It cannot be easy to maintain charity and grace in this debate, and I admire you all for your persistence and your desire to continue in dialogue.

    • James Byron July 4, 2014 at 11:12 pm #

      Thanks David and Ian, it’s appreciated. We all gain from talking civilly to those we disagree with, hard as it may be (on both sides!)

      • Etienne July 6, 2014 at 1:03 pm #

        Yes, but everyone should bear in mind that this is no polite theoretical discussion. These subjects affect real people with real lives.

        It’s so easy for a straight Christian to tell his gay neighboir all about his sin. They rarely like it when the gay neighbour responds in kind. And you don’t have to look far to find a suitable occasion. Christian waistlines being notoriously well-padded, the obvious rejoinder to “you’re going to hell for sleeping with another man’ has to be “and gluttony will get you to heaven, will it?” Oh how upset they get, as if their sin is sacrosanct whereas ours is public property.

        So while everyone here is congratulating each other on the politeness of this discussion, remember that it’s only through the forebearance of those whom you attack that politeness is possible.

        Let’s see how polite you remain when someone starts commenting on whatever sin troubles you.

        • James Byron July 6, 2014 at 7:22 pm #

          Etienne, I couldn’t agree more that the church’s treatment of LGB people isn’t an abstract issue, and that the church’s current policies destroy people’s lives and loves.

          My comment applies only to how we engage with those we disagree with. Bombardment just makes people shut down. That isn’t code for sitting on the fence; I’ve never minced my words about how wrong I believe the church policies to be, or the damage they’ve done.

          (And to answer what you said upthread, I don’t treat the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels as beyond question.)

        • Ian Paul July 7, 2014 at 2:50 pm #

          Etienne, I am slightly baffled as to your grounds for saying this. If you don’t go to church, how do you know? How would you know that I preached about the evils of consumerism last night in our evangelical church? Or noticed that I teach and write about fasting, eating less and giving money away?

          • Etienne July 8, 2014 at 9:19 am #

            I don’t go to church now, but I have been in the past. And I’ve heard priests and pastors preach about the evils of homosexuality and the evils of gluttony.

            Example 1: Excerpt from a Homily on the Evils of Sodomy

            “Sodomites are forcing their perverse lifestyle upon society and our precious children. The homosexual activist movement and organized pedophiles are linked together by a common goal: To gain access to children for seduction into homosexuality.”

            Example 2: Excerpt from a Homily on the Evils of Gluttony

            “The other reason I don’t want to define gluttony just in terms of “overeating” is that it’s too easy for us to get bogged down in legalism and in a false sense of control where we think, if we just control what we’re eating, then that’s what God wants and that puts us in a righteous spot before him.”

            Do you see the difference in tone? The first excerpt is targeted at the hated outsider. It’s harsh and condemnatory in tone. It treats the homosexual as innately evil and beyond the pale. It’s a call to arms. A call to reject. A call to condemn.

            The second excerpt is targeted at the insider. It’s soft and conciliatory in tone. It treats the glutton not as evil, just as misled or slightly confused about the true path to holiness. It’s a gentle reminder rather than a call to arms. It’s inclusive rather than exclusive.

            When churches speak about gays, they speak about “them”. When they speak about gluttons, suddenly the language moves to “us”.

            What better way to tell us we’re not wanted. And what better way to say that your sins aren’t that bad really, but ours are unforgivable?

            So yes, I’ve been to your churches and was so sickened by the self-righteous narcissism, I doubt I’ll ever go again. You can be fat and holy, but you can’t be gay and holy. The fat man can keep ramming as much food as he likes down his gullet but the gay man has to renounce his sin altogether. Double standard, or what?

  9. Etienne July 6, 2014 at 11:31 pm #

    There’s really only one thing I understand less than orthodox Christian belief as expounded by the Church. And that’s unorthodox Christian belief as expounded by random individuals or groups of individuals who equate their own (generally very loose) interpretation of scripture with truth.

    If specific words are attributed to Christ in the Gospels, and the Gospels are indeed part of God’s word, why would you question them? If you reject the words attributed to Christ, why not all the rest too? What’s the deciding factor when it comes to accepting or rejecting specific passages of Scripture? You own opinion?

    Sounds to me as though you’re defining God in your own image using only the bits of Scripture you’re willing to accept. This I do not understand because how can an omniscient and omnipotent God possibly be defined by a fallible and limited human being?

    Either Scripture is completely accurate in all of its particulars, or it’s just fiction. There’s no intermediate position because the moment you question one aspect of the story, the whole thing is up for grabs. If Christ’s words can be questioned, why not his deeds? If his deeds can be questioned, why not his life and death? And if his life and death can be questioned, why not the very concept of his deity?

    Introduce one element of doubt into the story and the whole edifice comes crashing down. You may have enough confidence in your own moral judgment to shore up the bits of the structure you’d like to see remain standing while letting the rest collapse, but do you really think you can persuade anyone else that you’re right?

    This kind of Christian particularlsm is the most problematic expression of religion because it’s basically the individual conscience run amok. At least the Church’s claims are rooted in a commonly agreed and complete interpretation of the Christian story. If Christianity is objectively true then the Church’s argument that we must conform ourselves to Christ rather than Christ conforming to us is the only tenable position. And as the only image of Christ we have comes directly from the Gospels, we’re obliged to look at the whole picture. Edit out what you don’t like and you start conforming God to your own image, which means you’re no longer worshipping God but rather yourself.

    • Ian Paul July 7, 2014 at 2:52 pm #

      ‘Either Scripture is completely accurate in all of its particulars, or it’s just fiction.’ Only if you adopt the empiricism which underlies the logic of the ‘inerrancy’ position.

      There is, however, a strong tradition of critical engagement within evangelicalism which has been around for at least 150 years, which rejects such a simple binary.

    • James Byron July 7, 2014 at 4:14 pm #

      “Either Scripture is completely accurate in all of its particulars, or it’s just fiction.” Why must it be a binary choice, Etienne?

      Critical engagement with the text isn’t seeking, Marcion-like, to turn one person’s opinion into infallible truth; it’s seeking to best understand the text, followed by questions about how it’s applied today. This is hardly a fringe activity: Christians from Catholics to mainline protestants to evangelicals engage in textual criticism.

      Yes, the results are tentative and provisional, even when held by a consensus (so it needn’t rest on one person’s conscience). How is that different to any other area of human knowledge? Moreover, why should we expect it to be? Whatever you want to say about God, we must understand it through our limited perspective.

      • Etienne July 8, 2014 at 8:54 am #

        It’s a binary choice because scripture claims to be revealed truth. If even one line of of it can be shown to be demonstrably false, it cannot be God-breathed.

        You cannot take the bits of scripture you like and say they and only they are divinely inspired while the rest is just human accretion. To do so turns it from God’s infallible word into a human stab in the dark.

        If scripture is just humans struggling to understand God’s will in their hearts and humans are fallible, then scripture must also be fallible, which means that no part of it can be trusted. Not the clobber passages, not Paul’s rantings about the inferior place assigned to women, not even the Gospel accounts.

        Muslims understand this. Could it be that the Quran and its status in their religion as God-breathed down to the last full stop (if full stops there are in Arabic – I have no idea) is a response to the woolly, ill-defined and morally ambiguous nature of Christian scripture?

        How can you build a faith on a series of ifs, buts and maybes?

        • Jonathan Tallon July 8, 2014 at 2:41 pm #

          Etienne, you are equating the position and status of the Quran with the Bible. I don’t think this is the correct comparison. As a caricature:

          Within Islam, the Quran is the revelation of God, and Mohammed (pbuh) is a witness to this revelation.

          Christianity is the opposite. The person, Jesus, is the revelation of God and the Bible a witness to this.

          Historically, Christianity has rarely interpreted the Bible in the way you suggest. The approach outlined by you really started off in the nineteenth century, and gained momentum in the 1960s. If you go back to the early church figures, you can find (for instance) Augustine complaining about people who took Genesis too literally.

  10. Etienne July 8, 2014 at 7:15 pm #

    But all we know about Jesus as the revelation of God comes to us via the Bible. So if the Bible is not a reliable account of what Jesus did and said, how can we know anything about God’s revelation?

    If the Bible gets even one of his deeds or utterances wrong, surely that throws doubt on everything else too. And in the face of doubt, how is it possible to believe?

    The way I see it, in the face of such doubt the only form of belief possible is the agnostic’s position of “it could be true, or parts of it could be true, but I don’t know, so I’ll believe in what feels right to me while maintaining an open mind and freely admitting I could be wrong”. Not exactly the stuff of which Christian martyrs are made, no? And certainly not the stuff that could persuade the LGBT community to renounce sex forever. We should sacrifice our lives because parts of the Bible may be a true account of Jesus’s life, but you’re not really sure because you weren’t there and all you have to go by are dubious eye-witness accounts that may or may not be accurate even if they feel right to you?

    Not a very compelling argument, really…

  11. Jane Newsham July 10, 2014 at 8:03 am #

    Ian, please could I ask you to make sure that a copy of ‘Same-sex Unions’ is available on the welcome desk at St Nic’s, in order that visiting same-sex couples (even civil partnered and same-sex married couples) will be forewarned that they should not expect to be accorded the same respect that would be extended to opposite-sex couples (after all, it’s in dispute that their relationship is a ‘way of life, hallowed by God’ on a par with the marriage of one man to one woman’).

    A post-it note on the cover, recommending that they visit St Peter’s, St Mary’s and All Saints, Nottingham, where the congregations are doing their best to follow the text that encourages them to treat other people in the ways in which they themselves would wish to be treated, might be helpful.

    • Lorenzo Fernandez-Vicente July 10, 2014 at 2:49 pm #

      I don’t think it matters much anymore, sadly, Jane. I’m gay, and none of my friend or family would touch the CofE with a bargepole anymore, just a few old guys in my congregation hang in by the skin of their teeth because they were born into the church and have lived through times that were infinitely worse, but the young? I think we’ve lost the gay community for a generation or two, and their friends too.

      I’m genuinely curious, it not a rhetorical question: how many would visit St Nic’s? How much of an actual pastoral problem is it for you, Ian? or is it just a theoretical theological problem to allow evangelicals to check each others’ credentials?

      I regularly get invited to the local secondary state school. It’s admittedly a metropolitan area of Surrey, but even being gay and liberal, and knowing most of the lads: it’s a hugely uncomfortable experience as they do wonder and ask how you can remain part of such a bigoted institution.

      • Ian Paul July 10, 2014 at 3:00 pm #

        Firstly, whilst I welcome comments, I think it is a shame Jane has personalised it so much, and made it a criticism of a particular congregation.

        Secondly, how on earth could you expect me to answer such a question? Suppose there were people wrestling with the issue, suppose there were families with gay sons, or transgender members of the congregation—how could I possibly answer your questions knowing that people from the congregation read the blog?

        Thirdly, I do think that on the ‘revisionist’ side there is sometimes an enormous lack of pastoral imagination as to what some evangelical congregations look like. If you have been somewhere where the pastoral tone has been hostile and alienating, I can understand that. But there does appear to be the general assumption that all those holding not a ‘traditional’ view so much as the Church’s *current* teaching are all like that.

        • Lorenzo Fernandez-Vicente July 13, 2014 at 7:14 am #

          “How on earth could you expect me to answer such a question? Suppose there were people wrestling with the issue etc.” I’d simply expect you to simply say, yea, we have a few gay couples or singles at St Nic’s, nothing more. But your very concern at ‘outing’ people who may be or even their relatives speaks volume to me, as does the phrase ‘wrestling with the issue.’ I have indeed been to many places where the tone was hostile and the fact that even the three or four ‘Living Out’ site members now touted as examples of orthodox biblical living only dared mention their ‘same-sex attraction struggle’ so late is quite revealing. The whole vocabulary that is used to avoid terms in universal currency is hostile and alienating.

          • Ian Paul July 13, 2014 at 10:21 pm #

            I am not ‘afraid of outing people’. I just don’t think this is the place to put people on the spot.

      • James Byron July 10, 2014 at 4:57 pm #

        Stonewall’s report on homophobic bullying in schools certainly suggests that it’s exceptional, Lorenzo!

        Endemic homophobia amongst young people is a timebomb for those who support equality, one that’s left to tick so long as support for gay rights is assumed to be widespread amongst teens.

        I suspect that assumption’s based on how they act around adults. They’re not stupid, and know that homophobia is publicly unacceptable. The right noises can easily be feigned. Sometimes they’ll be genuine; other times, not.

    • Ian Paul July 10, 2014 at 2:56 pm #

      Jane, thanks for your comment..even with its touch of sarcasm!

      But I simply reject your assumption that ‘respect’ amounts to agreeing with people with whom we disagree, and that if we don’t agree that means lack of respect. My experience of St Nic’s is that it is a place which welcomes and respects people from all sorts of walks of life, backgrounds and assumptions.

      I also reject the idea that any church should ‘vet’ people on the way in. The issue is not ‘what is the acceptable starting point’ but ‘what does the goal of holy living look like’, a goal to which we are all, falteringly, lurching towards by the grace of God.

      • Etienne July 10, 2014 at 8:53 pm #

        Jane’s comment seems fair to me.

        There is no respect in the Church’s position that our relationships are disordered and sinful in and of themselves. It’s the essence of homophobia.

        Conservatives hate it when we use that word to describe their attitude towards us, but when you boil their arguments down to their essential components, what they’re saying is God hates gay sex so gay sex is evil, therefore all gay relationships are evil. How much more homophobic can you be?

        Homophobia is never respectful. Or do you think it’s respectful to tell black people they should accept slavery because of the curse Noah laid upon Ham? That’s a racist belief and no matter how sincerely you might believe it, it never conveys respect. All it communicates is the believer’s own superiority complex and his contempt for those who are not like him.

        There is no respect for gay people in your churches. There’s proof enough of that by the vanishingly small number of us who are willing to be sneered at and treated as “less than” by you.

        Keep on telling yourselves you respect us if you like, but we know better. You really don’t fool anyone but yourselves.

      • Jane Newsham July 12, 2014 at 9:12 pm #

        Thank you, Ian, for your reply to my comment and I apologise for the delay in my response. I am sorry that you see my comment as personalising the issue – but of course, the issue is personal and none more so than for those people in your congregation wrestling with these questions, those families with gay sons, or transgender members. Your publication of yet another book on the ‘clobber’ texts (as if there really aren’t enough on the planet already), further putting LGBT people on the back foot, portraying their relationships as having failed to be a ‘way of life, hallowed by God’ on a par with the marriage of one man to one woman’, may be for them enormously unhelpful and demoralising.

        St Nic’s may a place which welcomes and respects people from all sorts of walks of life, backgrounds and assumptions (and I don’t doubt this for one second) – but if this is the case, why on earth would you want to jeopardise this by being connected with a work which might effectively distance and diminish a whole section of Nottingham’s community (and not only LGBT people themselves but their supportive friends, family members, work colleagues and neighbours – and at which point it becomes personal to me!). I’m relieved to hear that St Nic’s isn’t hostile and alienating to LGBT people but perhaps those LGBT people haven’t yet read ‘Same-sex Unions’ (a new publication by the associate minister, Dr Ian Paul, available on the church bookstall and there are signed copies on the welcome desk. Absolutely no sarcasm here, this is a genuine request, LGBT people visiting our churches have every right to be given enough information about each church’s stance on same-sex relationships to make an informed choice).

        So, in all of our churches, we still have church members who continue to struggle with our rapidly changing cultural situation– and it is these people whose needs really should become a priority for all our churches at this stage of the LGBT inclusion process. These are the people whose (misguided) commitment to the few ‘clobber’ texts leads them to behave in ways which are indeed hostile and alienating – to the detriment of the people with whom they engage, their church fellowships, themselves when they flounder in confrontational situations, and even, I might dare to say, to God.

        The issue is less about sexuality than it is about inclusion. How do we enable our church members to be absolved of their need to put LGBT people in the dock and find them guilty, no matter how much they might be persuaded to by books such as ‘Same-sex Unions’? Would it be worth majoring, even just once, on the anti-clobber ‘enabling’ texts (say Luke 6:31, Romans 8:37-39, John 10:10, Galatians 3:26-28, 1 Samuel 16:7,1 John 4:13-16, and Matthew 7:3) – those texts which encourage church members to think beyond their own petty concerns about keeping their church ‘holy’, not being seen to endorse sin, undermining the sanctity of marriage, capitulating to culture etc and perceive a bigger picture of God’s hand at work in the world, breaking down barriers and detonating our man-made divisions and discriminations? How can I persuade you that this is another Grove Booklet with your name on it?

        • Ian Paul July 13, 2014 at 10:38 pm #

          Jane, I don’t really understand your logic here at all.

          On the one hand, you want congregations to be welcoming—but on the other, you are suggesting that the FIRST thing people are confronted with is an argument that you describing as unwelcoming.

          Then you assume that the booklet addresses only the ‘clobber texts’, when in fact I have posted on this blog the chapter about whether Jesus was inclusive and what that might mean.

          You further identify identify the idea that the biblical texts might prohibit same-sex activity with being anti-gay—which rests on a conclusion about the very texts which I am considering.

          In fact, there is a lack of consideration of these texts within the discussion, and this kind of short study is what I think is needed. To quote from the conclusion of the booklet:

          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)

          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. (Diarmid McCulloch)

          The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says. But what are we to do with what the text says?… I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. (Luke Timothy Johnson)

  12. Etienne July 15, 2014 at 11:59 am #

    I find it interesting that Ian Paul seems to be trying to manipulate Jane Newsham into making a public statement that she rejects biblical teaching.

    I don’t pretend to know anything about Christian politics, but I do know political manoeuvering when I see it.

    This smacks of one faction bidding for power by calling a rival faction’s allegiance to core doctrine into question. You see it all the time in Westminster. Seems a pity that the Church, that supposed bastion of unworldliness, is also riddled with it.

    And by their fruits shall ye know them. I guess the Bible does get some things right after all…

  13. Jane Newsham July 16, 2014 at 12:27 am #

    Thank you Etienne and I appreciate your comment here. However, I have no trouble with Ian attempting to outmanoeuvre me whenever he wishes as long as the doors of communication stay open. Neither group on either side wins or loses the point, and we all seek to see God’s kingdom extended.

    Ian mentions the post ‘Was Jesus ‘inclusive’’ and I missed commenting at the time, so I take the opportunity now:

    “ Given Jesus’ ‘conservative’ approach to sexual ethics generally (such as supporting the more restrictive of the approaches to divorce), it is difficult to imagine that he did not also share the characteristic Jewish rejection of same-sex relations.”
    Jesus supports the more restrictive of the approaches to divorce in order to secure protection and economic security for women in a culture in which women were disposable objects. His emphasis on the gender binary of humanity by citing Gen 1.27 argues the case that, in a culture in which men are deemed ‘sons of God’ and women are deemed ‘daughters of men’, both men and women are made in the image of God. In marriage, men become one flesh with women and despite everything they believe, this does not defile them – because women too (hard as it is to imagine) are made in the image of God.

    When Jesus speaks to the woman at the well and tells her ‘everything she ever did’ – including the history of five husbands and her current common law husband – it is without any hint of condemnation and call to repentance, in fact, his invitation to faith is unconditional. If Jesus had a ‘conservative’ approach to sexual ethics generally, he might have avoided even being seen to talk to this woman.

    In our own time, many of us would find it difficult to imagine that Jesus (who after all,still lives now) does not understand and support the desire of same-sex couples to commit to marriage in the same way that (during his earthly ministry) he obviously encouraged opposite-sex couples to do.

    So how long now, do you think, before the majority of our churches come to hold a universal and consistent Christian ethic on sex – abstinence in singleness and sex only within marriage (but you simply don’t get to choose for another person whether their marriage is opposite sex or same-sex)? How far might it serve God’s purposes, that in our churches, we treat all married couples, both opposite-sex and same-sex, with equal respect in order that all people (single and married, straight and gay, in faith or thinking about faith) might have equal access to commit to Christianity, deepen discipleship and find a place in our church fellowships?

    Thanks, Ian, for this slot – this last paragraph rhetorical and we’ll no doubt cross thoughts again on another post.

  14. Peter January 15, 2016 at 12:27 pm #

    argues that we should ignore the texts on sexual ethics in Leviticus 18 and 20 because we ignore the prohibition on eating shellfish and wearing clothes of mixed fibres. I had thought that this kind of ‘naïve’ (in the strict sense) reading of the Old Testament, which assumes that all commands have equal significance so must be accepted or rejected together, had been set aside in the debate.

    Having just been listening through David Suchet’s reading of Exodus & Leviticus, where some rules seem sensible and others downright barmy, I have been wondering how we tell which have been superseded by the new covenant, and which might still be in-place? Christians do seem (and it’s a generalisation) to be very good at cherry-picking those they want to have swept away and those which still impact, and I can’t grasp on what basis.

    Are there any resources you’d recommend to help me dig into this?

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