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Unhitching women from gays

The slightly odd title to this post arises from a conversation I had with a friend last week. We were (in passing) noting the tone of the public discussion since the House of Bishops’ statement on same-sex marriage, and the response to the Pilling report, and she commented:

Of course, I cannot say anything—because I am a woman.

I was really taken aback by this, and had to think for a moment to realise what she was saying. It is repeated so often in the discussion—and by people on diametrically opposed sides of the debate—that it is now frequently assumed: if you believe that the Scriptural data allow or support the idea of women in leadership, you must also believe that the same is true of same-sex sexual unions.

This kind of careless thinking appears to be a growing part of the discourse on the issue, particularly on social media and online comment. It is sometimes expressed as ‘The Church changed its mind about women, so it can change its mind about gay relations’, or the converse point of view: ‘The Church sold the pass on women’s leadership, so it is not surprising that it is capitulating on gay relations.’

But there are two very powerful sets of reasons why these two issues are not linked in the way that the popular debate appears to imagine.

rt_franceThe first is to do with the nature of the relevant scriptural texts pertaining to the two issues. Some years ago, the late Dick (R T) France explored precisely this question in an early Grove booklet in the Biblical series, A Slippery Slope? which was subtitledThe Ordination of Women and Homosexual Practice—a Case Study in Biblical Interpretation’. Dick was coming from a position as a conservative evangelical, initially opposed to the idea of women in leadership, who changed his mind through his engagement with the biblical texts. He then found other conservatives criticising his reading of the texts:

In Britain, and more specifically in the Church of England, those who, like myself, have argued from Scripture for the appropriateness of ordaining women to positions of leadership in the church have often been confronted by others with the assertion that if our hermeneutical principles can lead us so clearly to discard the plain injunctions of Scripture on this one issue, we are bound also to approve homosexual practice, since the same principles apply. (p 3)

He then explores some of the relevant NT texts, and notes that different texts, read in a certain way, appear to point in opposite directions in relation to women’s ministry.

The interpreter is therefore left with a choice as to which of these two contrasting strands in the NT should take priority in drawing out guidance for modern church life. Hence the fundamental disagreement between equally sincere interpreters of Scripture over the ministry of women. It derives from opposite choices on this basic dilemma.

When he looks at the texts relating to same-sex relations, however, there is a quite different dynamic.

Does the Bible here also leave us with a dilemma?

Wolfhart Pannenberg answers that question decisively: ‘The Bible’s assessments of homosexual practice are unambiguous in their pointed rejection, and all its statements on this subject agree without exception.’ Our survey of the biblical material above supports his conclusion, which has also been the overwhelming tradition of Christian teaching through the ages. The situation is thus decisively different from that with regard to the ministry of women. On homosexual practice the Bible speaks with a consistent voice.

If France is right here, then not only is the discussion on these two issues of quite a different shape, but the resolution of difference needs to take a different form as well. The provision for opponents of the ordination of women was always built, in part at least, on the disagreement between ‘equally sincere interpreters.’

(You can read the full article by Pannenberg at Christianity Today online. He concludes his article in forthright style:

Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture. Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

It is striking to read this written in 1996—not much progress in the intervening years!)


The second set of reasons has to do with the text in their cultural contexts. France is here considering mostly the world of the texts themselves, looking at their inner dynamic. A rather different perspective is offered by William Webb’s study of Slaves, Women and Homosexuals. Webb seeks to explore the ‘hermeneutics of cultural analysis’, in other words, looking at the way that the texts on these issues sit within their cultural context, historically understood, and seeing how that affects our interpretation.

Early on, he notes the following dynamic in biblical teaching on women compared with its contemporary cultural context in the ancient near east (ANE) and Graeco-Roman culture (p 76ff):

As one compares the biblical texts about women to their surrounding foreign context…a certain impression emerges. On the whole, the biblical material is headed toward an elevation of women in status and rights…:

1. Improved rights for female slaves and concubines…
2. No bodily punishment of a wife…
3. Women’s gain of (limited) inheritance rights…
4. The right of women to initiate divorces (in the NT)…
5. Greater rights in divorce cases (OT)…
6. Fairer treatment of women suspected of adultery…
7. Elevation of female sexuality…
8. Improved rape laws…
9. Softening the husband side of the household codes (NT)…

An overall assessment is captured well by the words of Eckhart Otto…:

The family laws in the book of Deuteronomy had a progressive and protective attitude to the legal status of women. They were deeply concerned with the restriction of male predominance.

Some of the context of this will be of scant consolation for those looking for a template for male-female relations read directly from the pages of the Bible—but that is precisely because we need to recognise that these texts belong to a different historical period and a culture far removed from our own. The kind of careful, historical, culturally aware reading that Webb offers is essential in making sense of what they say.

When Webb looks at the comparison on homosexual activity, a very different picture emerges (p 81f):

The homosexual texts also move the yardage markers relative to the original culture. Homosexuality [sic] was openly practised in the surrounding cultures. However, the Israelite and Christian communities did not accept these sexual practices in their theology, in their temple worship or in their everyday community living. Scripture interacts with the foreign scene of homoerotic behaviour on at least three levels:

1. Challenging the portrait of ancient gods…
2. Removing homosexual practices from the temple cult…
3. Legislating against homosexual practices within community life…

So biblical tradition moved the cultural norms on homosexuality from a significant amount of tolerance and acceptance to non-tolerance and non-acceptance within the covenant community.

I don’t think some of the details of Webb’s analysis are beyond dispute, but it would be hard to overturn the general direction of his conclusion (p 252):

The comparative outcome is this: the homosexual texts are in a different category than the women and slavery texts. The former are almost entirely transcultural in nature, while the latter are heavily bound by culture.

So the textual, contextual and interpretative questions in relation to the two issues are quite different. I hope that recognising this will give my friend, and others like her, confidence to contribute to the discussion.

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55 Responses to Unhitching women from gays

  1. deacongill March 17, 2014 at 6:38 pm #

    It also seems to me that the two questions are different in kind. Surely the argument about women in leadership is a matter of church order. The argument about sexual relationships is a matter of holiness. Or am I missing something?

    • Ian Paul March 18, 2014 at 7:45 am #

      I think I would agree with you in many ways. But these two issues have been hitched together, by ‘conservatives’ as a matter of obedience to Scripture, on the ‘liberal’ side as a matter of ‘inclusion’ as these comments show.

  2. Chris Bishop March 17, 2014 at 8:30 pm #

    I think that liberals and revisionists are inclined to see the litmus test and guiding principle for these issues being whether they are ‘inclusive’ ‘just’ or ‘equal’ rather than theological.

    So I think you first have to demonstrate that modern notions of inclusiveness, justice and equality are the same (or not) as what the Bible sees them as.

    The gospel is hardly inclusive-or why should there be goats as well as sheep? (Matt 25:31-46, Matt 7.21).

    According to Jesus some people will be excluded-or was he wrong?

  3. Bob MacDonald March 17, 2014 at 10:19 pm #

    I think you have proved what you wanted to prove from your selected texts. The issue with inclusivity is as unambiguous in the case of homosexuality as it is with slaves and women. The best reading of this – from years ago is Wrestling with God and Men, Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition, by Rabbi Steven Greenberg. The difficulty I have is this: where is my judgment of my brother or sister within Christ? I know what the Spirit has done in me for me and for all with whom I have had to deal in family and church. I cannot exclude those of a different orientation from this Christ. I cannot remove their Christ from them by a regulation. Paul is unambiguous in Romans – who are you that judge your brother? We do not bring people into Christ by regulation. The schoolmaster is useful but the arbiter is our Lord, who makes heaven and earth. I do not think that my words put me in an antinomian position.

    • Ian Paul March 18, 2014 at 7:50 am #

      I am not sure I have ‘selected’ any texts. Both the studies I cite are very broad-ranging.

      As Chris above comments, there are plenty of ‘exclusive’ texts in the Bible–not least on the lips of Jesus himself. That does not necessarily allow me to use the same language, but it does pose the challenge as to where we get the understanding of ‘inclusivity’.

      Yes, Paul is unambiguous in Romans: his question ‘who are you to judge’ is part of his argument that ‘all have sinned’. He is pointing out to the Jews he addresses in chapter 2 *not* they the Gentiles are not as sinful as they think, but that the Jews are just as sinful as the Gentiles who are rightly condemned. So *all* need to repent and be saved, not just the Gentiles.

      I agree with you that it is not a matter of regulation, but as Chris says, for Jesus and Paul it appears to be a matter of holiness, which is why on this issue they continue to appropriate the sayings of the OT law on this matter.

      • Bob MacDonald March 18, 2014 at 2:42 pm #

        On the motive for holiness, I am in complete agreement. This is indeed the calling that we all have, whatever state or orientation we appear to be in.

  4. James Byron March 17, 2014 at 11:37 pm #

    Crucial question here is *which* culture. There’s different cultures side-by-side.

    All the anti-homosexuality texts in the NT come from Paul of Tarsus, a man born Jewish and Roman, a man who, if Acts if right, studied at the feet of Gamaliel, but in any case, a man who, in his own words, was a devout Jew who excelled in the study and practice of his faith. In Paul’s cultural context, the Mosaic law made homosexuality anathema. His homophobia might have been transcultural from some pagan POVs, but certainly not from a 1st century Jewish perspective.

    • Ian Paul March 18, 2014 at 7:51 am #

      Webb’s point is that, all through the Bible, in relation to a whole range of different cultures, this is the consistent position of the scriptural position. So it is not limited to one particular culture or context–I think he makes his point very persuasively.

      And of course, if you believe Paul is ‘homophobic’, then you do need to set aside Scripture as having determinative authority in Christian ethics.

      • James Byron March 18, 2014 at 8:06 am #

        I do. We of course disagree on this. 🙂

        The Hebrew Bible is shaped by Judaism, with some Hellenic influence in the NT. The different cultures are viewed from that perspective: idols, say, are condemned as consistently as homosexuality.

  5. Richard Fellows March 18, 2014 at 2:51 am #

    The use of the term “homosexuality” when discussing the bible illustrates a lack of understanding of sexual practices in the ancient world. Same-gender sex (and sex in general) had very different roles in Greco-Roman culture than it does in ours. We cannot assume that Gay marriage was included among the range of practices that Paul had in mind when he wrote on same-gender sex. Hultgren makes this point well in his commentary on Romans. See my blog post here.

    • Ian Paul March 18, 2014 at 7:58 am #

      Richard, thanks very much for commenting. I agree with you that the term is anachronous, and it is interesting to see how the debate has moved on in the last couple of years. Webb’s book, and in particular his use of terminology, seems incredibly dated now!

      I think I agree with half of your comment–of course there was not ‘same-sex marriage’ in the first century. However, alongside the examples you quote, it is also true that life-long and ‘innate’ same-sex attraction and committed relationships were not unknown. (Your quotations do show, though, how same-sex relations were viewed with revulsion as well as acceptance.)

      But I think you are mistaken in commenting that in the biblical texts ‘same-gender sex is strongly associated with idolatry’. Paul is not arguing that same-sex relations lead to idolatry, but that they precisely constitute idolatry. There is increasing recognition of this amongst all commentators–see, for example, William Loader. A striking thing about all these texts is that they are very non-specific in terms of context, but wide and general prohibitions.

      • Richard Fellows March 18, 2014 at 10:16 pm #

        Ian, thanks for your thoughtful reply. You wrote, “A striking thing about all these texts is that they are very non-specific in terms of context, but wide and general prohibitions.” I wonder, though, whether this is relevant, given that Paul was part of a high context culture. While Paul may marshal various arguments to induce a desired response from his readers, it does not follow that he would accept the validity of applying the same arguments to a different context. Consider Paul’s statement in Rom 13:3-4 that the good have no reason to fear the authorities. These statements appear to be “wide and general”, but surely Paul would not apply them to the context of his escape from Damascus or his imprisonments or the imprisonments of two of his addressees (16:7). Paul was a rhetorician, not a logician, so it is hazardous to apply his logic to contexts other than his original one. It is better to consider what change in actions or attitude Paul is trying to induce, rather than assume that the logic of his words have universal applicability. This is particularly true with Rom 1:26-27. Here Paul’s purpose is not to discourage same-gender sex, but to discourage judgemental attitudes. That said, we can probably infer that Paul and the particular addressees shared an opposition to the same-gender sex of their day. But to apply Paul’s words to the modern gay marriage debate is to take them too far beyond their original intent (which was, ironically, to discourage judgement).

        • Ian Paul March 18, 2014 at 10:57 pm #

          ‘These statements appear to be “wide and general”, but surely Paul would not apply them to the context of his escape from Damascus or his imprisonments or the imprisonments of two of his addressees (16:7).’ But of course he was indeed writing after such experiences. So the challenge is that he did indeed locate his own negative experiences within this apparently positive theology of the state.

          On Rom 1.26-27, I don’t agree with you that the rhetorical point is ‘don’t judge others’. What he is arguing is very specifically ‘Don’t you Jews, whose argument I have just rehearsed, think you are any better off than the Gentiles you rightly criticise.’ The rhetorical climax of this initial argument comes in the section starting at Rom 3.9, where he draws on a catena of OT texts to make his point, expressed in Rom 3.23 ‘There is no difference for all have sinned’ and so all are in need of repentance, forgiveness and the grace of God.

          I think this principle is relevant to the current debate. Those who call themselves ‘heterosexual’ have no cause to look down on others—not because the others are sinless, but because ‘heterosexuals’ are just as sinful. We all need to repent and be saved not by our orientation, but by God’s grace in Jesus. Not judging one another is important, but for Paul it is a staging post on the way to a more significant conclusion.

      • Jonathan Tallon March 19, 2014 at 9:52 am #

        Ian, you say that same-sex relations constitute idolatry for Paul. Isn’t it more true to say that for Paul same-sex relations are a consequence of idolatry? That is what Loader argues: “He is not making a list of sins, the first of which is idolatry and the second, same-sex relations, for the second flows as a consequence of the first”. (Loader, 2010, 17).

        You also say that the texts are non-specific in context. But of course the context of Romans 1 is idolatry, and much pagan worship of the time involved a range of sexual practices including females taking male roles, cross-dressing, self-mutilation and sexual frenzy.

        See in particular: Townsley, J. (2011). Paul, the Goddess Religions, and Queer Sects: Romans 1:23–28. Journal of Biblical Literature, 130(4), 707-728;
        and also
        Townsley, J. (2012). Queer Sects in Patristic Commentaries on Romans 1:26-27: Goddess Cults, Free Will, and “Sex Contrary to Nature”? Journal of the American Academy of Religion.

        • Ian Paul March 20, 2014 at 9:51 pm #

          ‘Ian, you say that same-sex relations constitute idolatry for Paul. Isn’t it more true to say that for Paul same-sex relations are a consequence of idolatry?’

          Yes, at one level I would agree with you–I have used slopping wording here. I agree with Loader’s observation, that idolatry and same-sex relations are not for Paul two sins. But contra Loader, Paul does in fact make a further list of sins, in 1.29f. Loader’s point is that idolatry is not the first in a series, but the underlying problem in all of them—pagan humanity is idolatrous in its entire outlook. Same-sex relations, for Paul the Jew, talking to Jews, is the most evident of these to highlight.

          So I agree with Loader against you that Paul is not referring to specific practices of pagan worship, but is railing against pagan life in all its forms—which he labels ‘idolatrous.’

        • Ian Paul March 20, 2014 at 9:51 pm #

          But thanks too for the comment, and for the two references.

          • Jonathan Tallon March 21, 2014 at 2:08 pm #

            Ian, thanks for replying. It’s clear that Romans 1:23 is talking about idolatry. It’s clear that Romans 1:29 is talking pretty generally. It’s not so clear that Romans 1:26-27 is general, rather than within the directly idolatrous (ie worship) context. Romans 1:23 says they ‘exchanged’ the glory of God for idolatry. Rom. 1:24-25 has a ‘…gave them up… …because they exchanged’ pattern, still talking about worshipping the creature not the creator. Romans 1:26-27 also has a ‘…gave them up… …exchanged’ language, and so could fit naturally as still talking more directly about idolatry. Romans 1:28 then has ‘…gave them up’ but no mention of exchange, and is more general.

            I guess what I am saying is that, whilst you can argue that this could be a general statement about the consequences of idolatry, there is also a strong argument that Romans 1:26-27 is still speaking about the specific context of pagan worship. I have yet to see any convincing arguments about why this interpretation must be wrong.

            (There is a further question here too, as I know you realise: what about same-sex relationships that don’t come from idolatry?)

          • Ian Paul March 22, 2014 at 7:52 pm #

            I am not sure I know what you mean by ‘the context of idolatry’. Paul is not hear referring to cultic activity, but the status of humanity as having rejected God. The context of the whole discussion is the ‘wrath of God’ because humanity failed to recognise him though his nature is clear from the creation. ‘For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.’

            So the sense of ‘exchange’ is God’s giving humanity over to their own folly. Hays puts it like this:

            “By way of sharp contrast, in Romans 1 Paul portrays homosexual behavior as a “sacrament” (so to speak) of the antireligion of human beings who refuse to honor Cod as Creator. When human beings engage in homosexual activity, they enact an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality: the rejection of the Creator’s design. Thus, Paul’s choice of homosexuality as an illustration of human depravity is not merely random: it serves his rhetorical purposes by providing a vivid image of humanity’s primal rejection of the sovereignty of God the Creator.” (p 386)

          • Jonathan Tallon March 24, 2014 at 2:20 pm #

            Thanks for continuing to engage, Ian.

            You write that in Romans 1, ‘Paul is not hear referring to cultic activity, but the status of humanity as having rejected God. The context of the whole discussion is the ‘wrath of God’ because humanity failed to recognise him though his nature is clear from the creation.’

            But the context here isn’t humanity rejecting God – it’s the pagans/gentiles rejecting God. And Paul is the one who brings in the cultic references in Romans 1:23, specifically referring to idol worship. So my question is, what is to prevent us also seeing pagan idol worship in vv.26-27?

    • Ian Paul March 18, 2014 at 8:08 am #

      Richard, I’ve just noticed your comment on arsenokoites as well: I think you are quite wrong to say this refers to active partners in same-sex intercourse. For the last several decades, the strong consensus is that Paul is coining a term to refer to Lev 18.22 LXX. Thus the term is quite general, and Paul is here reiterating the OT norm. (I think you are right about malakoi.)

      • Jonathan Tallon March 19, 2014 at 9:42 am #

        Ian, the fact that Paul has coined a term from the LXX doesn’t tell us much about its meaning (particularly since we have nothing else to compare it to). What Paul had in mind in particular is unclear. One possibility is that it is meant generally; another that it refers to predatory males (man-bedders); another that it’s the active partner.

        • Ian Paul March 20, 2014 at 9:44 pm #

          ‘Ian, the fact that Paul has coined a term from the LXX doesn’t tell us much about its meaning (particularly since we have nothing else to compare it to). What Paul had in mind in particular is unclear.’

          I don’t think I understand this comment. The fact that the word is unknown previously strongly suggests that Paul coined it from LXX, so we *do* know precisely what Paul had in mind: Lev 18.22!

          So a. he is assuming that this command carries over to the new Jewish-Gentile mixed community of believers and b. it continues to carry its general, non-cultic force.

          • Jonathan Tallon March 21, 2014 at 2:27 pm #

            My apologies if I was unclear. I agree that Paul probably got the language from Leviticus. But I disagree that that means we know what he had in mind when he used it. We don’t know the semantic range of the term within his own context. Did he automatically assume that arsenokoites were (usually) married males (ab)using boys and slaves? It is telling that the Didache has a specific injunction against those having sex with children – it shows the first century climate. And this was the overwhelmingly most common form of same-sex activity.

            A similar conflation happened over the Winter Olympics. Putin allowed homosexuals to come, provided they didn’t try to harm children: ‘”You can feel relaxed and calm [in Russia], but leave children alone please,” said Putin’. Homosexuality was assumed to include pederasty, in Russia now, as the ancient world then.

            There is also an assumption that Paul interprets Lev. in a non-cultic way. But again, it is an assumption. The code is, after all, about holiness. It is possible (though in my view less likely) that Paul was thinking about the cultic context again.

            This is what I mean when I say it is unclear what Paul means.

          • Ian Paul March 22, 2014 at 7:38 pm #

            Well, we know that the term is very general, ‘men bedding men’; we know that the list of vices in which he cites this is quite general and non-cultic; we know Paul links these things quite generally with the life of the kingdom; here the list of vices has some correspondence with the 10 commandments; but we know the other place where he uses the term (1 Tim 1.9) the vice-list matches very closely with the 10 commandments.

            So all the clues point to Paul’s use of the term quite generally. Given that other near-contemporaries link same-sex activity with child abuse, and Paul *doesn’t* seems to reinforce this.

            And I don’t think there is any reason to suppose that Lev 18.22 is cultic; again, as Webb points out, the fact that same-sex activity was acceptable within pagan cults make the general nature of the prohibition striking. But most of the commands preceding this one have no cultic connection.

          • Jonathan Tallon March 24, 2014 at 3:23 pm #

            You write ‘we know that the term is very general’. We don’t. It is possible that it is meant widely and generally; it is also possible that it had quite a specific meaning (particularly perhaps to the Corinthians). In 1 Timothy (I leave aside the question of authorship) a quite specific wrong-doing is listed (translated slave-trading in the NRSV) in the same vice-list.

            You note that other near-contemporaries of Paul do link same-sex activity with child abuse, yet use this as an argument against this meaning in Paul. Isn’t it at least as likely that Paul is referring to this as well? The argument from silence runs both ways.

            I actually don’t think the context here is cultic. However, I could not rule it out; the question would be how second temple Judaism interpreted the Levitical texts. There are hints that Philo might have seen links between them and pagan worship involving same-sex activity (see Philo, Special Laws, 3.7) Philo refers to the Lawgiver as having condemned such behaviour, within a general discussion of the ten commandments and in particular ‘don’t commit adultery’. In other words, a Jewish contemporary of Paul who, in discussing the 10 commandments, links sexual immorality with cultic worship.

        • Linda Belleville August 15, 2014 at 4:38 pm #


  6. James Byron March 18, 2014 at 7:16 am #

    By “homosexuality” I was referring to actions, not orientation. Paul having a concept of sexual orientation is irrelevant to his condemnation of homosexuality, as the law of Moses condemned male-on-male sex in all circumstances. A blanket condemnation of homosexuality would necessarily snare equal marriage.

    All this should be beside the point. Paul wasn’t infallible. He was a man, with a flawed human perspective, shaped by the limits of his time and culture. We should not be bound by his personal opinions today. On homosexuality, as on so much else, Paul was simply wrong.

    • Ian Paul March 18, 2014 at 8:00 am #

      James, on your first point I entirely agree with you, and you effectively answer Richard’s point above.

      On the second, I think you are wrong, as you know. But you are taking the opposite argument to Richard, and I think your logic is more persuasive: if I want to affirm same-sex relations, I must reject the NT. This used to be the clear position of LGCM, and said so on their website.

      • James Byron March 18, 2014 at 8:22 am #

        Reject a particular way of reading of the NT, certainly. I don’t see disregarding an individual verse in which Paul condemns homosexuality as different in kind from disregarding an individual verse in which he (or whoever wrote in his name) condemned women holding authority, or commanded slaves to obey their masters.

        • Ian Paul March 18, 2014 at 11:05 am #

          Then I think you need to look a little more closely at the relevant arguments. ‘Ignoring individual verses’ is not at all what is going on in either case. That is Webb’s main point.

  7. Ravi Holy March 18, 2014 at 7:48 am #

    I think Webb’s book was published while I was at theological college…. I am one who sees women and gays as related. I am unconvinced by Webb at al. If the Scriptures are so clear about women, how come the church didnt notice this until a few decades after secular feminism and a century after the suffragettes?! It seems to me that when it became too difficult to hold the trad position, the church (effectively) told its ‘lawyers’ (ie scholars) to search for precedents until they found them. Which they did. We are now in the same process vis a vis gays and in 30 years, the centre of gravity will shift on that such that even most evos won’t have a problem with it. Anecdotally, I think many younger evos (in their teens and 20s) already don’t. All of which fulfils the mantra that the church responds to every major and positive social change first by resisting it, then by accepting it and finally by saying ‘this is what we’ve always thought’.

    • James Byron March 18, 2014 at 8:18 am #

      I like the way you put that, especially scholar/lawyer analogy! I think the analysis is right on. The church isn’t immune to social pressure.

      I agree with Ian about what the Bible says, as I agree that it’s divided on women in authority in a way it isn’t divided on homosexuality — but the pro-women hermeneutic has a powerful tool that can be transferred to affirm homosexuality: it accepts that individual Bible verses can be wrong, and gives preference to the overall message.

      Extending this logic, the overall message of acceptance — and especially Paul replacing the law of Moses with the law of the Spirit — can be extended to include gay people.

      Some affirming hermeneutic will be found. The liberal *what Paul really meant …” has fallen flat, but it’s unsurprising, it was weak to begin with, written as it was by people who don’t really believe in biblical authority to begin with. The answer will come from within evangelicalism.

      • Ian Paul March 18, 2014 at 11:03 am #

        James: ‘I agree with Ian’. Can I frame that?!

        ‘it accepts that individual Bible verses can be wrong, and gives preference to the overall message’ But that is not what is happening. Most who support women in leadership have argued for a re-reading of the texts, not discounting one against another.

        And the problem with applying this to the same-sex issue is finding the affirming verses–precisely Webb and France’s point. If you want to find the contradictory voice, you need to look elsewhere than Scripture, as in fact I think you say yourself.

        • James Byron March 18, 2014 at 12:09 pm #

          The case for women’s ministry often rests on yanking Galatians 3:28 out of context.

          If the argument’s that the Bible never forbids women from holding authority, and never commands slaves to obey their masters, strike my previous comments. If that’s how it’s going down, why not argue that it doesn’t condemn homosexuality?

          If nothing else, this shows that texts can be made to say most anything, which illustrates why I base my ethics on merit, not authority. Even if I conceded that the Bible was revealed truth, the ambiguity of texts is inescapable.

          • Ian Paul March 18, 2014 at 11:01 pm #

            I cannot think of a serious author who simply bases their argument on Gal 3.28 alone, or even as the major text.

            I cannot think of a single NT text which prohibits women from exercising exousia or any other cognate of that common NT word.

            If inviting slaves to obey their masters amounts to approval of slavery, then Paul’s invitation to submit to authorities in Rom 13 must be a defence of Imperial despotism I guess.

            As I have said before, if texts can be made to mean anything, then your contributions here (as texts) can mean anything I want them to–so I wondered why you bothered to write them!

  8. Ian Paul March 18, 2014 at 8:04 am #

    Ravi, thanks for commenting (early in the morning). I hope you don’t mind me saying that I think your summary here a tad cynical. Christians have been affirming women in leadership for generations if not millennia; look at the Salvation Army who more than 100 years ago made female leadership mandatory! Look at the examples on Steve Holmes’ blog.

    Both Webb and France point out that the texts on women, objectively speaking, point in different directions, and France notes this accounts for a specific feature in the debate.

    Your last comment appears to assume that the church should not, cannot and has not shaped culture, which I find (apart from the cynicism!) a very odd reading of history.

  9. Hugh March 20, 2014 at 6:42 am #

    I agree that there may be a difference in the exegetical arguments, but in a recent set of posts Mike Higton argues that the C of E report “Men Women and Marriage”, rests its theological arguments about same sex marriage precisely (and to his mind carelessly) on a particular view of gender difference. (sorry, I don’t know how to do the link thing)

    • Ian Paul March 20, 2014 at 9:42 pm #

      Thanks for the link thing (which worked!). I had read Mike’s earlier responses to the HoB statement and the criticism of it. Mike and I have chatted in the past on various issues.

      I hope to respond a bit to his comments, as I think he does something strange with hermeneutics and theology. In his HoB response, he suggested that something more was needed beyond reading the text of Scripture, and a theology of gender identity needed developing—before policy could be formulated.

      I have no doubt such a theology is needed at some point—but the way he put it appeared to be saying that we cannot be shaped by a responsible interpretation of Scripture until we have formulated a systematic theology as the intermediary between the text and our practice.

      This seems to me to be putting the theological cart before the hermeneutical horse. We might want to develop theology in order to offer an apologetic for our action, or our understanding of Scripture. But it seems odd to me that we cannot undertake sensible reading of Scripture and act on it.

      • Jonathan Tallon March 21, 2014 at 2:40 pm #

        I had a quick look at Higton’s comments. He seemed to be arguing that the Bishops’ statements assumed a theology of gender as a starting point, and that that theology could be deeply flawed and was largely unexamined. If that’s a starting point for hermeneutics and other theology, then he’s right – you need to make sure that foundations are secure before you build other stuff on top.

        • Ian Paul March 22, 2014 at 7:27 pm #

          But I think he is mistaken in his premise. The statement is not ‘assuming a theology of gender’ but is based on a careful reading of Scripture.

          I am unclear why we need a fully-fledged ‘theology’ before we can identify what Scripture is saying…

  10. Tony Garrood March 21, 2014 at 12:27 pm #

    I am one of those who believes women should not be ordained and that homosexual passion and pratice are wrong. The 2 issues are connected in the following ways.

    1) They are actually connected, churches which have ordained women have also (later on) approved of homosexual passion and practice amongst both laity and clergy. Churches which have not ordained women continue to disapprove of homosexuality. Compare the Methodist Church and the Roman Catholic Church. Compare the different trajectories of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.

    2) The issues are connected ideologically in modern, Western countries. Any differences between men and women are accounted for culturally and held not affect their essential equality and interchangeability in any role or task. Any real difference is understood to be narrowly biological. But given this it is hard to see what is unnatural about homosexual passion or practice, in exactly the same way that it is hard to see why women should not be church ministers.

    3) In the Bible the difference between men and women is defined in terms of authority. Men and women are the same, they are different in that men have authority in ways that women don’t. Those who object to biblical patriarchy then struggle to find in the Bible just where the difference (if there is a difference) between men and women lies. So the marriage union is not a unity of sameness precisely through the difference of the parties. It is a unity of sameness per se, a unity grounded in passion, desire and love, not in sexual intercourse and authority and submission. But if men and women are the same with no difference located in authority, why not have marriage between two men or two women?

    4) The continuing normativity of Bible commands. Those who approve of women ministers say that the passages in the Bible that teach women should not be ministers are to be disregarded. In the light of 1), 2) and 3) (and for many other reasons) they do not apply today. But having said this it is difficult to fall back on a ‘the Bible says’ position with regard to homosexuality. The Bible on its own as the final guide and authority about what Christians should do has been undermined, because what it commands about men and women is neither final nor our authority. What it actually says about men and women may still be taken to be true and normative, but what it commands is local, particular and subject to reformulation and laying aside. Just so with the commands about homosexuality. Once modern ways of being gay are discovered to be absent in the Bible, why then not put aside its commands in just the same way the commands about men and women rooted as they are in the order of a fallen patriarchal society have been marginalised.

    5) The critique of Bible patriarchy (as part of a wider repudiation of patriarchy) which much Webb-like exegesis involves, is taken over by advocates of modern gay identity. Much Bible teaching about women which allocates to them a second class status involves just the sort of patriarchal conceits that lie at the heart of homophobia. Once we’ve realised the source of the one, we can understand exactly that the fear of the homosexual in the Bible texts must be excised from the modern church in just the same way that the normative status of male power over women must be done away with.

    • Ian Paul March 22, 2014 at 7:57 pm #

      Tony, thanks for commenting at length. But the aim of my post is precisely to point out that these connections are all mistaken, on both sides.

      Many of the biblical texts on women oppose, rather than reinforce patriarchy, often in quite surprising ways. And the prohibitions on same-sex activity are nowhere connected with patriarchy, which is further evidence that these two are not connected.

      ‘Those who approve of women ministers say that the passages in the Bible that teach women should not be ministers are to be disregarded.’ Some have said that, but not Dick France or Webb, nor me. As far as I am concerned, it is a question of taking the Bible more seriously. How could we explain Paul’s appointment of women in leadership, his acknowledgement of their ministry, his ‘gender-blind’ language of ministry and gifting, as well as his apparently symmetrical views of relations in marriage in 1 Cor 7.4, if Paul did not think women could be ministers?

      • Tony Garrood March 23, 2014 at 1:04 am #


        You are generous with your comments on people who post on your blog, so it wouldn’t be right for me to comment further at length.

        Your reply is about the Bible texts. It would be interesting to know what you make of my first point, which was about how denominations actually deal with the issue. Once one, then the other seems a common (if not universal) pattern. Would you not agree? This would then link the issues today, even if not in the Bible.

        The same with my second point about the link between the issues in our societies and the interchangeability of male and female in all social roles. It does seem gay advocates and feminists see the issues as the same issue, equal rights. How closely this is linked to interchangeability of roles is a different matter Nevertheless on a naive level, if anything a man can do a women can do and vice versa, then why not when marriage roles are in view?

        My third point is my challenge to your exegesis. I think your women and authority book is about the sameness of men and women. How then are men and women different in such a way that homosexuality is ruled out? Having ruled out authority as the difference, I think you will find it hard to locate in the Bible a doctrine of the difference between men and women that justifies the prohibition of same sex relationships. I look forward to your upcoming Grove Book to prove me wrong on this.

        I accept your correction about my fourth point as far as your Grove Book is concerned. I agree you do not disregard Bible teaching forbidding women ministers, because as you see it the Bible does not teach this. I reserve judgement on Webb on the same point. I still believe all three of you do treat Bible commands in this area as local, provisional and subject to reformulation where they instruct action that constrains women in their exercise of ministry and in this sense you relativise divine commands to a particular time and place and I think this will come back to bite you (if you can excuse the phrase) when it comes with universalising prohibitions against homosexuality. I hope you will prove me wrong.

        Of course I think that the type of biblical patriarchy/complementarianism I espouse, with its strong emphasis on the sameness of men and women is well able to explain repudiation of pagan patterns of men/women relationships without thereby giving up authority-type difference.

        My final point about patriarchy is to try to get at where Runcorn and Higton are coming from. The texts against homosexuality may not have a directly patriarchal context, but they arise out of a patriarchal society which is necessarily homophobic, just as it is anti-women.

        Hope you will post something on Ricoeur.


        • Kamal June 26, 2014 at 7:34 pm #

          Tony, in response to your question as to how denominations view the issue, I don’t think there’s quite the trend that you’ve painted. As Ian said, The Salvation Army has probably been the longest supporter of women’s ministry, and it remains orthodox in its sexual ethics. Many (most?) Pentecostal churches also allow women to preach and pastor (though with varying mileage on the levels of pastor), and they’re generally about as orthodox in sexual ethics as Christians go.

      • James Byron March 23, 2014 at 11:15 am #

        It’s easily explained if Paul didn’t write the Pastorals, Ephesians, and the movable lines in 1st Corinthians (14:33-35).

        What’s your take on Pauline authorship?

  11. Blair March 27, 2014 at 9:57 pm #

    Dear Ian (and all),

    Would just like to pick out a few strands from this thread and make a comment or two…

    If it’s granted that gays should be unhitched from women as it were, what about the lending of money at interest? After all, there are no biblical texts which commend usury, and I’d imagine it’s safe to say that Jesus would not have approved (and certainly that his silence on the matter can’t be taken as approval). Yet Christian (and Jewish) interpreters felt able to overturn more than sixteen centuries of opposition to the practice. Andrew Goddard’s essay ‘Semper Reformanda’, available on Fulcrum, looks to me a good guide to this – but he does not say why similar hermeneutical moves can’t be made in relation to the ‘gay thing’. I’d be interested in your thoughts on the analogy between how texts on usury, and those deemed to ‘deal with’ homosexuality, might be read.

    Another good guide (I’d have thought) to the debate on usury can be found in Rabbi Steven Greenberg’s ‘Wrestling with God and men’, which Bob MacDonald mentioned above. I note that you don’t pick up on his reference to this work in your reply – can I ask if you have read Rabbi Greenberg’s book?

    His book is more important (I suggest) for its reading of Leviticus 18:22. Early on Greenberg makes a strong case for the text referring principally to the penetrative partner in male-male sex. (I’ve quoted from this before on Peter Ould’s blog but will spare you now for conciseness’ sake). In that light, Richard Fellows would not be “quite wrong” in his comment about the meaning of ‘arsenokoites’ and it is questionable whether “the term is quite general” as you state. It’s also notable that throughout this thread, the terms ‘homosexual’ and ‘same-sex’ have been used when frequently it’s only male-male sex under discussion. There’s only one possible reference in Scripture to sex between women – as far as I’m aware (which may not be that far, true) there’s no doubt that all the other passages usually cited are only speaking of some kind of sex between men. If this is valid, it’s another bulwark against how widely a word like ‘arsenokoites’ can be applied.

    In friendship, Blair

  12. Etienne March 31, 2014 at 5:17 pm #

    Paul was just as human as you or me, therefore just as bound by Christ’s words “judge not lest ye be judged”.

    The utterances of a human being may well appear in Scripture, but this does not make them divine law.

    If Christ had said what Paul says in Romans 1, then as God his words would be proscriptive and that would be an end of the matter. But he said nothing against homosexual practice. Or if he did, those words have not survived.

    If someone can show me a single divine utterance as reported in accordance with the rules of historicity (i.e. multiple independent corroborating witnesses), then I will accept that homosexual practice is sinful. Until then, it’s all just a matter of opinion. And those who so readily spout their opinion will be judged for it, it seems to me.

  13. Ian Paul March 31, 2014 at 5:45 pm #

    ‘The utterances of a human being may well appear in Scripture, but this does not make them divine law.’ Actually, in Christian theology it does—it is called the canon of Scripture.

    What is striking is precisely the fact that all the texts on same-sex relations are very similar and very consistent, over a long period of time and from a range of cultural contexts—which is Webb’s point in his book. So it is not a case of ‘spouting opinion’ but reflecting the fairly consistent testimony of Scripture.

    • Etienne April 1, 2014 at 4:11 pm #

      The fairly consistent testimony of Scripture also assigns women to an inferior place. You can theorize all you like about the position of women improving over time in Scripture, but to extrapolate equality as the endpoint of a process that moves from virtual slavery to indentured servitude is unjustifiable given the very clear statements in Scripture about male leadership and female subservience. Improving conditions for women do not make equality inevitable. You might as well say that improving conditions for workers have abolished management’s right to manage.

      What you’re doing is taking your own cultural prejudices and projecting them onto Scripture to provide justifications for what you feel to be right and true. But if Scripture is canon then women are subservient. There’s no getting around that. It’s written.

      You tell us to accept scriptural prohibitions on gay relationships while ignoring the prohibitions on women usurping the place of men. According to your own rules, you are preaching a double standard.

      • Ian Paul April 1, 2014 at 4:21 pm #

        Thanks Etienne for contributing. ‘The fairly consistent testimony of Scripture also assigns women to an inferior place. ‘ I think you are mistaken here, not least in the creation narratives and in key parts of Paul. I have written about that extensively–do look at my other blog posts on the subject.

    • Blair April 2, 2014 at 2:46 pm #

      Dear Ian,

      …but couldn’t something similar be said of the texts on usury…? I’m curious to know if you have any thoughts on my comment above.

      in friendship, Blair

      • Ian Paul April 2, 2014 at 9:17 pm #

        Well, let me think. Is the prohibition on usury something we find mentioned at the heart of the creation narratives? Is it picked out as something that is emphatically rejected in the law codes? Is it reinforced anywhere in Jesus’ teaching on ethics? Does it crop up in Paul, and does Paul reiterate the OT law on this, and relate it to the new life in the kingdom? Does it get a mention even in the book of Revelation in relation to the New Jerusalem?

        The answer to some of these question might be ‘yes’–and I happen to think that the principle is important, and is needed to address some really key issues in our current context. But I think it would be hard to suggest that the answer to *all* these questions would be ‘yes’—which is I think what would be needed to suggest this was an equivalent issue?

        • Blair April 5, 2014 at 11:05 pm #

          Hello Ian,

          thanks for your comment. Out of interest, is that comment also your answer to my earlier question, about why you’d say one can’t apply Andrew Goddard’s summary of Calvin’s hermeneutic, to the ‘gay question’?

          But I think your questions are themselves questionable. There is no prohibition on same-sex sex in the creation narratives, for a start. What is “emphatically rejected in the law codes” is anal sex between men – one meaning of which is that it is not the sameness of gender that is the problem, for otherwise sex between women would have been proscribed also. Turning to Paul, it seems arguable to me that it’s not straightforwardly the case that he “reiterate[s] the OT law on this, and relate[s] it to the new life in the kingdom” because Romans 1 does not do this and 1 Cor 6:9 could only refer to sex between men, so again not same-sex sex in general. Please could you explain your reference to the book of Revelation though – I’ve an idea what you might mean but don’t want to assume. But I would suggest that the argument isn’t quite as watertight as your tone above might suggest.

          in friendship, Blair

  14. Caleb July 15, 2014 at 10:43 am #

    I haven’t read the other comments here, so I apologise if I am repeating what others have said.

    I have already largely responded to the points you make here in my two previous comments on other blogs (here: and here:, but I may as well make a few more remarks here.

    I think Webb’s “trajectory” approach is indeed the correct one to take to the Bible on gender. But Webb’s (and your) blind-spot is not understanding that gender restrictions on sex/marriage (historically as well as logically) come from the same roots as other gender restrictions: essentialist binary sex/gender roles that function to sustain the dominance of men over everyone else, and are contradicted by both contemporary sex/gender science and the ‘trajectory’ best represented in Galatians 3:28.

    You are right to add “[sic]” to your quote of Webb and to say “I don’t think some of the details of Webb’s analysis are beyond dispute.” He takes as the basis of his examination a broad and ahistorical monolithic concept of “homosexuality”; thus his statements are about as useful as if he was making equivalent statements like “Heterosexuality was openly practiced in the surrounding cultures.”

    “The comparative outcome is this: the homosexual texts are in a different category than the women and slavery texts. The former are almost entirely transcultural in nature, while the latter are heavily bound by culture.”

    – The more I read about Greek/Roman/Jewish views of sexuality, the more convinced I become that the texts on “homosexuality” [sic] are also “heavily bound by culture.” Romans 1:26-27 could have come straight out of the mouth of a contemporary Stoic (so much so that strong arguments can be made that Paul is either lampooning Stoics in the passage, or referencing them favourably).

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