Andrew Goddard writes: As set out in my shorter summary, I believe the three articles entitled “Same Sex Marriage & Scripture: Affirming Evangelical Response” which were commissioned by Jayne Ozanne for her Via Media blog are significant and helpful responses to the Oct 2018 letter from the Bishop of Blackburn and ten other evangelical Church of England bishops. In the previous posts I firstly responded to David Gillett’s proposal for re-reading Genesis 2, then David Atkinson’s proposal of covenanted friendship as a pastoral accommodation. I now turn to the third article of the three.
David Runcorn – Development and the Spirit, Going Beyond Scripture & Diversity in Discernment
Spirit-led development & going beyond Scripture
The third response, by David Runcorn opens up a number of other important areas within the sexuality debates that are not addressed in the earlier pieces. In particular it raises the question of development in church teaching and the role in this of the Spirit, Scripture and culture. It helpfully does so on the basis of agreement with the bishops when they write:
The church must always be reformed according to the Word of God, and God has “more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word”. But neither can we simply abandon what we have received in order to appear relevant and avoid feeling uncomfortable. As God’s people carefully re-read Scripture together, allowing it to teach us, we may be challenged where we are wrong and be led into deep learning, serious intellectual persuasion, and heart-felt repentance for past errors.
David Runcorn appears surprised or confused that this understanding has not led the bishops to share his conclusions or at least to accept his conclusions as legitimate: “But the letter remains insistent there can be no change in the ‘traditional’ understanding of marriage. I want to ask – on the basis of the letter’s own understanding of the re-forming Word – why not?”.
This is a crucial question to ask but the bishops’ stance is neither incoherent nor inconsistent. Nor is it hard to see their rationale. They are not ruling out absolutely any “change in the ‘traditional’ understanding of marriage”. They are saying that they cannot see how the changes they have seen proposed in relation to same-sex unions and same-sex marriage are “according to the Word of God”. And, in fact, the article’s own approach provides evidence of why they are right and that this is the deeper difference between its author and the writers of the letter.
The only substantive appeal to Scripture made by David Runcorn in relation to the specific question of same-sex unions and marriage is his claim that the traditional texts have been misread. He holds that “these Bible texts condemn abusive sexual behaviour of any kind. They are not for applying to what is loving, faithful and committed”. That argument is an increasingly common one but it is one which is highly contested and not simply by those who are “traditionalists”. Luke Timothy Johnson for example writes:
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
Even if one is persuaded that the classic prohibitive texts do not apply, this simply leaves us having to say something like “Scripture does not directly address our questions about ‘loving, faithful and committed’ same-sex unions”. The question then becomes – if we grant that silence – on what biblical basis we might answer those questions.
One response is, like David Gillett, to go back and re-read Genesis and find there a new, supposedly biblical, doctrine of God’s purposes in creation that helps us redefine marriage and the nature and significance of being made male and female. Another is, like David Atkinson, to ask how Scripture might help us discern “the best way of making optimum moral sense of a less than ideal situation”. David Runcorn, however, takes a different path. He appeals to being led by the Spirit in going beyond the Bible by means of “an unfolding revelation” so that we go “beyond the received revelation as long understood”.
There are a number of places here where his exact argument is unclear. As noted above, he appears to base this method and his acceptance of same-sex sexual unions on the fact the biblical prohibitions “are not for applying” to our concern as they only deal with abusive sex. However, prior to that he defended a model of unfolding revelation by appealing to the view of Karl Allen Kuhn that “To insist, as some do, that all of the specific injunctions of the New Testament concerning particular behaviours must stand for all time is to assign to biblical instruction a role that it has never before performed” (Runcorn’s emphasis). It would appear, therefore, that he is ultimately saying (like Luke Timothy Johnson quoted above) that even if the “specific injunctions” of Scripture were prohibitive of all same-sex sexual behaviour, including in “loving, faithful and committed” relationships, then that would not be conclusive. Here, one suspects, is one of the reasons why he and the bishops end up in different places. Is he, unlike them, open not just to more truth breaking forth out of Scripture but to “new revelation” which is apart from Scripture and overturns biblical revelation due to “the dynamic nature of God’s instruction” (Allen quote)?
Appealing to Gentile inclusion
But David Runcorn’s argument is that his position has the support not just of tradition (though the appeal to slavery is weak as it could be argued that where Christians have supported this it reflects conformity to their cultural norms in the same way that some see this conformity happening in acceptance of same-sex marriage) but of Scripture itself – “an unfolding revelation is evident within the scriptures”. Here appeal is made, as is increasingly common, to Acts 15 and the inclusion of the Gentiles. There are many much larger and more complex issues raised by this than Runcorn’s brief discussion can even acknowledge, let alone address and I explored some of these over a decade ago in a Grove booklet, “God, Gentiles and Gay Christians: Acts 15 and Change in the Church”. A few, however, merit highlighting in order to illustrate the limits and dangers of too simplistic an appeal to this in arguments for same-sex marriage.
The first challenge is of course that the existence of this “unfolding revelation” within Scripture does not necessarily mean it continues in the same way down through the centuries. The existence of progressive revelation in Scripture is not in dispute. There is though the question of how such a claim of unfolding revelation – not just to private guidance but to normative, universal truth – relates to the ultimate significance, even finality, of divine revelation in Christ and the apostolic witness to him. At the very least, the novelty and significance of what is happening in our time is noteworthy. God is apparently now revealing something new he is doing in including gay unions within the life of his people which is equivalent to when he revealed something new by including Gentiles within the life of his people after the Incarnation and Pentecost. Then there is the fact that in Acts 15 the development of welcoming uncircumcised Gentiles into the people of God is one which is based not simply on dreams but on the gathered community reaching a common mind. In this process the consistency of the development with Scripture, cited as the authority in James’ speech, is crucial.
The challenges are not just in relation to process but also substance. Although circumcision is not required in Acts 15, rejection of sexual immorality (porneia) is required. This is at the heart of the current debates: what counts as forbidden porneia? It seems clear that those gathered in Jerusalem would have accepted the standard Jewish view that this included all forms of homosexual behaviour and in fact many scholars see the Council’s prohibitions as based on the chapters in Leviticus that include rejection of homosexual practice—and it is striking that we find in Paul’s letters just this kind of continuity on sexual ethics with the Levitical commands. We therefore either treat their conclusion as normative or we go beyond it through appeal to the ongoing work of the Spirit as we discover that “cultural and social pressure play an important part in raising awareness and awakening conscience in a way that has forced a revisiting of how we have been reading and interpreting the bible for today”.
Diverse Discernment: What is the Spirit now saying? – Gentile inclusion & the argument of Dale B. Martin
The question, then, becomes one as to what exactly it is that the Spirit is now saying, in part through such cultural pressure. This is far from clear among advocates of change. As already noted, David Gillett is clearly a supporter of same-sex marriage while David Atkinson is in favour of a form of same-sex union not incompatible with church teaching on marriage. David Runcorn’s position is not explicitly stated but probably involves one of these two stances. There are, however, other gay Christian views which are often ignored or consciously excluded even when there is an emphasis on the need for inclusion and listening to gay Christian voices.
One of the most radical of these, though not without support from others, is that offered by the New Testament scholar Professor Dale B. Martin. His book Sex and the Single Saviour is often cited in debates about Scripture and homosexuality, particularly his questioning of the meaning of the two key words used by Paul and seen as rejecting all homosexual practice. In the Inaugural John E. Boswell Lecture in 2008 entitled “A Gay, Male, Christian, Sexual Ethic” (it can be watched on Vimeo), Martin looks how the meaning of sex in our culture is very different from that in the biblical texts and the ancient world and argues that “An ethics of sex must address what sex is. For us. Now. In all its varieties”. He then proceeds to talk specifically about “gay male sex” on the basis that although “I actually have, rarely, had sex with a woman…I have known lots of gay men—and I mean that in the biblical as well as nonbiblical sense. I’ve had lots of sex with lots of men, gay, straight, and bi”. So what Professor Martin offers is very precisely defined:
“A” sexual ethic because I don’t propose my ideas as being the ethic for anyone, much less everyone. “A gay” ethic because I’m not addressing the meaning or ethics of sex for anyone but homosexuals. “A gay male” ethic because I believe lesbians may need a di?erent approach to sexual ethics if they experience sex di?erently, about which I know nothing. “A gay male Christian” sexual ethic because this thinking and reasoning is being done selfconsciously in the context of Christian faith, informed by Christian scripture, tradition, doctrine, and community. So that’s my topic, a sexual ethic designed for gay Christian men, and quite possibly suitable only for them, and quite probably not for all of them by any stretch of the imagination. But it does seem to work for me, and has for many years.
Having set out his method he then delivers his ethic for this particular group: “Sex is good and Christian when it is done in a way that embodies love appropriate for the relationship in which it occurs”.
This ethic leads to his support for same-sex marriage though it is important that this is not because it is necessary for holy living but simply a matter of justice because “although I would prefer that the state and the church get out of the marriage business, as long as they are in the marriage business it is simply unjust to deny gay people the opportunity to marry”. He is himself not seeking marriage:
Some male couples I know both want to be married. I am personally, as perhaps a bit more radical Christian, not very interested in pursuing gay marriage. I’m not convinced that marriage is the answer for us gay men, certainly not for myself.
Here we see that reasons for supporting same-sex marriage among gay Christians can take a number of significantly different forms.
According to Martin, single gay men who are dating and considering cohabitation or marriage
…ought to have sex with one another, in many di?erent ways and circumstances…I regularly counsel young men not to fall too much for another guy and certainly not to make him their “boyfriend” until they have had quite a few rolls with him in various piles of hay. Try it out first.
Other single gay men may meet their need for sex in other ways – “Many men, for instance, have regular pals they get together with. “Friends with benefits” some call it. I won’t here use the vulgar term that is actually more popular among men. You probably know what I mean. I believe such relationships are perfectly fine”. And this may be more open still –
What about sex among friends? That is, sex that involves more than two people? I must admit, I have not often pursued group sex, and have turned down o?ers of it, because I’ve tried it and found that it is too distracting and in some cases even disturbing for me. I usually feel a bit guilty if I’m completely drawn to one guy in the party and turned o? by another. I get distracted feeling that I have to give “equal time” and energy to everyone. That’s my problem, so I seldom have had group sex. But I don’t think there is anything necessarily wrong with it. Again, as long as everyone is honest, on enough of the same page, and treats everyone involved fairly, I believe group sex can be fine for some people and completely healthy.
There is also no need for a relational context – “with the proper precautions, even merely playful sex with a man you have just met, or whose name you may not even want to know, can be Christian”.
This ethic is then basically extended beyond single gay men to gay couples. Here the agreement between partners as to the basic rule for their sexual behaviour (exclusive or open?, informed or ignorant?, acting alone or together?) is the main limit – “I have friends who have been together for five or ten or twenty or thirty years and for whom sexual exclusivity has never been important to them…they’ve decided that though they cherish a certain emotional exclusivity between themselves, mere sexual exclusivity is not important for them”. There will thus be a variety of such non-exclusive relationships. Martin is clear that no form of them can be stated to be wrong except “if it is not done in love and if it ends up harming them”. He concludes:
But I know too many cases in which such relationships have gone on for years, and for the life of me, I can’t see anyone being hurt by it. In fact, the sexual openness of the relationship, many men will tell you, is precisely what has helped keep their relationships permanent, solid, and loving. This may sound incredible to other people, especially straight people, and perhaps especially women. But I know it to be a fact.
I am not suggesting any of the three writers here would agree with Dale Martin. Why then cite his views, especially as I have always tried (perhaps not always successfully) to critique the “best case” of those pressing for change and not to set up extreme cases in order to dismiss more careful ones? We cannot ignore his views. His is an important voice in biblical scholarship on the subject (as evident from publications and being invited as inaugural John Boswell lecturer) and at least some of his views, although rarely set out as fully and clearly, have been supported by other gay Christian writers. In addition, many of the lines of argument – the focus on love, the need to consider personal lived experience of individuals and the LGBT community, the difference of our world from the ancient world as crucial in appealing to Scripture etc – are common elements in many arguments for less radical arguments for change. His views were also what lay behind the very broad ethics in the statement of conviction established when the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement was founded in 1976:
It is the conviction of the members of the Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement that human sexuality in all its richness is a gift of God gladly to be accepted, enjoyed and honoured as a way of both expressing and growing in love, in accordance with the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. Therefore it is their conviction that it is entirely compatible with the Christian faith not only to love another person of the same sex but also to express that love fully in a personal sexual relationship.
When LGCM recently changed its name to OneBodyOneFaith it made changes to the statement but, despite the existence by then of both civil partnership and civil same-sex marriage, it did not change this ethical vision to set the vision of “a personal sexual relationship” in a more specific, morally normative description or category:
It is the conviction of the members of OneBodyOneFaith that human sexuality, sexual orientation and gender identity in all their richness are gifts of God gladly to be accepted, enjoyed and honoured as a way of both expressing and growing in love, in accordance with the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. Therefore it is their conviction that it is entirely compatible with the Christian faith not only to love another person of the same sex, but also to express that love fully in a personal sexual relationship; We believe that expressing our gender and sexuality with integrity is important as a way to grow in love and discipleship; we long for the day when Christians fully accept, welcome, affirm and offer equality to everyone in their diversity.
The reaction of many Christians to Martin’s proposed “gay, male, Christian sexual ethic” will I suspect be similar to that which Runcorn cites from a conservative opponent of any form of same-sex relationship: ‘I feel as if my face is being pushed into vomit.’ However, as Runcorn rightly points out this cannot be our guide: “On his Joppa rooftop Peter would have understood that feeling very well. But he learned that revulsion is not a reliable guide to good theology, divine will and purpose”.
Here is why Martin’s work is particularly important in relation to David Runcorn. Runcorn is puzzled as to why, especially given their apparent agreement that our relationship with Scripture is “always unfolding, never exhausted and where understandings may need to change and evolve over time”, the bishops cannot follow him to his conclusion or at least recognise its validity. It is therefore important to work out why the bishops do not reach his conclusion and whether their stance is coherent. It is also important to work out why Runcorn, given his method, cannot follow Martin or at least recognise that his conclusions are legitimate and an acceptable application of the same method. Is such a stance consistent and coherent?
One line of response would be related to the specific biblical texts. David Runcorn’s reading (which he is not able to defend here) is that “those texts traditionally presumed to be teaching against homosexual relationships in every case describe subjugation, rape or violence, excessive lustful activity, patterns of coercive male dominance and a total disregard of acceptable norms of social, religious and sexual behaviour”. Martin’s ethic can I think avoid the majority of these descriptors although it faces challenges with “excessive lustful activity” and “a total disregard of acceptable norms of social, religious and sexual behaviour”. But what counts as “acceptable norms” as these are clearly very variable and rapidly changing in our culture and many churches? In addition, “excessive” needs definition and Martin would I’m sure argue that his ethic is not “lustful” but focussed on love. In any case, Martin may accept Runcorn’s list as to what the New Testament prohibits but simply respond, given his emphasis on cultural difference between the biblical world and ours, that “to insist, as some do, that all of the specific injunctions of the New Testament concerning particular behaviours must stand for all timeis to assign to biblical instruction a role that it has never before performed”.
Runcorn’s main argument, though, is not about how to read the classic, specific texts but to do with development and the model set out in Acts 15. Turning to the appeal the Gentile analogy it is clear that Martin can appeal to this for his conclusions just as Runcorn can. In fact he may even have a stronger case. The passage is often read in such a way that the Jews represent the heterosexual majority. Gentiles are then the excluded LGBT minority (the relative sizes showing one of many dis-analogies) who now need to be included, whether in the church or in the institution of marriage. But no conservative is wishing to exclude people because of their sexuality. Their concern is to exclude behaviour which they believe God in Scripture condemns and warns can exclude people from the kingdom of God. The question therefore is, as noted earlier, what counts as porneia. Here the appeal by analogy to Acts 15 on its own cannot rule out Martin’s argument and indeed could support it. Runcorn notes that the real struggle was whether Gentiles were to be welcomed “on Jewish terms. That is why so much of the argument centred around how Jewish Gentile believers needed to become”. Martin, one suspects, might argue along the following lines. In defining porneia to permit same-sex sexual activity but to then require adherence to sexual exclusivity or marriage on the part of gay men(as Runcorn does) is, by analogy, to welcome gay men only on heterosexual terms and in fact we need to consider much more seriously ‘how straight queer believers need to become’. Runcorn and his followers, in imposing heterosexual norms on gay men are, in fact, remarkably similar to the conservative Jews who wanted to impose Jewish norms on Gentiles.
Scriptural authority, development, and an unchangeable Christian standard in sexual ethics?
Underlying all this is also the question as to whether there is in any sense a single, universal, sexual ethic or “unchangeable Christian standard” which the church has received as God’s will for us as human beings. It appears that Martin does not think there is (although it is not clear what ethic other than “Sex is good and Christian when it is done in a way that embodies love appropriate for the relationship in which it occurs” he would think right for groups other than gay, Christian men). In contrast, the bishops’ letter argues that there is such an ethic. It speaks of “the need for the church to offer a coherent, single ethic for all of us as people whose fundamental identity is not something we define for ourselves: rather that we are made in God’s image, have fallen captive to sin, are redeemed by Christ, and are being sanctified by the Spirit”. It sums this up by reference to two Lambeth resolutions – “faithfulness and chastity both within and outside marriage” (1978) and “a pure and chaste life before and after marriage” (1920).
David Runcorn critiques this latter reference. He writes that it “is unfortunate in being lifted from a highly reactionary and conservative debate opposing contraception. In its original context the quote is supporting a view of marriage and family the church, and these signatories do not hold”. But the bishops are not claiming to agree with all the 1920 resolutions. They are highlighting that Anglicans have consistently held to this standard and then articulated it more fully. The question they are asking is whether those pressing for change are also rejecting this broader standard. If so, for example, also allowing sex before marriage or consensual open marriages then there needs to be honesty about this and justification of its more radical stance and implications (something I explored some time ago). If not, there is a need to show convincingly how and why this broader standard remains a constant in the midst of change and development. Are their proposed changes in relation to same-sex unions consistent with this standard? As noted in relation to David Atkinson’s article this might mean redefining traditional understandings of chastity and purity (eg to embrace within it exclusive, lifelong sexual same-sex covenantal unions). Furthermore, can they persuade the church that the new articulation of this standard so as to accept within it behaviour which was previously prohibited does not undermine what the traditional teaching sought to protect? This is what has been done by Anglicans since 1930 in relation to the use of contraception within marriage and what needs to be done now in relation to same-sex unions if appeals to that earlier development within Anglicanism are to carry any weight.
Here again we also return to the recurring, underlying and crucial question of the place of Scripture in arguments for change. The first reason that the 1930 Lambeth committee gave for revising the earlier resolutions on contraception were that that although its proposed revision rejected ‘a very strong tradition that the use of preventive methods is in all cases unlawful for a Christian’, this tradition ‘is not founded on any direction given in the New Testament’. As we have seen there remains ambiguity as to what Runcorn, and many others advocating change (especially those identifying as evangelicals), are saying in relation to development led by the Spirit and the place of Scripture.
Is it that the Spirit is showing us we have misread Scripture and that a very strong tradition that homosexual behaviour is in all cases unlawful for the Christian is in fact “not founded on any direction given in the New Testament” and so, learning from a combination of Acts 15 and our culture, we need to be led by the Spirit? If so, then, in response to Scripture’s silence on the specifics, we need to work out how we read Scripture as a whole in relation to sexuality and how we do justice to both tradition’s negative stance (even if not authorised by Scripture) and the arguments for a more positive stance in our current context.
Or is it that the Spirit is now showing us God is doing or revealing something new just as he did to Peter at Joppa and that “to insist that….the specific injunctions of the New Testament concerning particular behaviours must stand for all time is to assign to biblical instruction a role that it has never before performed”? If this is the case then there is an important distinction between whether God is simply revealing what Scripture kept hidden or even contradicted or whether God is (as in Acts) doing something new in human history which makes acceptable within God’s people what previously was unacceptable.
In both cases – whether Scripture is silent or superseded – it remains unclear how appeal to the inclusion of the Gentiles or indeed any other criteria will, on its own, guide us as the church to choose between the varying options on offer – same-sex marriage (Gillett and probably Runcorn), same-sex unions compatible with teaching on marriage (Atkinson), or some other more radical proposal such as that advocated by Dale Martin.
Revd Dr Andrew Goddard is Associate Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (KLICE), Cambridge and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Anglican Studies, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California.
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