Joshua Penduck writes this open letter to Steven Croft in response to his argument for change in the Church’s doctrine of marriage.
It’s always difficult to put one’s head above the parapet when confronting the controversial issues of one’s time. It takes courage to do so – and for that I admire you in writing your statement. I too would much rather keep my head safely below the trench-line. I don’t enjoy conflict and would normally go out of my way to avoid it. Nevertheless, I feel that a response is needed to your statement.
I am not a conservative evangelical. In many ways it is better to call me a liberal evangelical in the line of Vernon Storr, Max Warren, and John V. Taylor – a line of missional evangelicalism going back to Simeon and the irenic Protestantism of Hooker and Jewell. I learnt this kind of evangelicalism through a curate at my church who helped me discover that there was a kind of evangelicalism called ‘Open’. He gave me several of your books to introduce me to that fresh way of thinking, something for which I am forever grateful. It has helped me develop a theological mindset that is fruitfully in conversation with other Christian traditions, open to the insights of the sciences and the humanities, open to the discoveries of modern biblical criticism, passionate about the missional interaction between evangelism and social justice.
It has also helped me recognise that Scripture has some contradictory traits which are often falsely harmonised. Sometimes we must recognise that the Bible is polyvocal. Sometimes we can see traits which emerge through the dialogical play of different voices which may guide us in making ethical or doctrinal decisions – I would argue the Anglican orders, the homoousion and female ministry belong to this category of thought. On other occasions and issues, we must be honest and admit that Scripture does not speak with one voice. In which case we must draw on other voices from outside of Scripture, namely reason, tradition and culture.
I am both open and evangelical. I am a proud son of the Reformation, in which one of the core battle cries was ‘Sola Scriptura’. This is core contention that in the Bible we have before us in some sense the word of God—God speaking to us. Through the cultural context of the time, God has communicated himself (in? through? under?) these holy pages. They therefore must be taken with utmost seriousness. To do otherwise would be to claim that the Bible is not the word of God. Too often sola Scriptura has been taken out of context to mean ‘nuda Scriptura’ or ‘naked Scripture’. Originally, the doctrine did not mean that there can be no insights outside of Scripture, but rather that Scripture is to be the foundation of all doctrine. All tradition, all reason, all culture must be tested by Scripture. Anything that is contradictory to Scripture, cannot be embraced by the Church. Anything that Scripture is not clear about or does not talk about should not be made a core article of faith.
But how can I believe in sola Scriptura after listing the sometimes polyvocal and dialogical phenomenon that is the Bible? Is this not simply building a foundation on sand? It is at this point that I return to the Reformers, who also recognised Scripture is not always as clear as we would hope. Yet the principle that the clearer parts of Scripture interpret the unclear parts gives us much illumination. Recognising the mountain of insights from hermeneutical scholars, unless we are to recognise that our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters were correct all along, we must claim (perhaps in faith) that Scripture can perspicuously tells its main story.
This includes such key doctrines as revelation, monotheism, creation, imago dei, sin, atonement, incarnation, resurrection, Pneumatology, parousia and so on. For instance, we know that the universe exists; human beings can discern that there may be an uncaused cause ‘behind’ this. Plato, Aristotle, Vishishadvaita and Dvaita Vendanta have all come to the same conclusions through reason alone. But only through reading Scripture can we discover that this uncaused cause is deeply concerned with the world ‘he’ has caused (notice that ‘he’ – gender exclusive language aside, it indicates that God is personal, something else which can only be perspicuously discerned through Scripture). Scripture gives us the lens through which we understand the world. It gives us the narrative structure through which we can discern what is of God and what is not. Contrary to some radical Barthians and fundamentalists, Scripture is not in contradiction to nature nor creation; rather gives us the clues for discerning nature and creation. This is, and always has been, the mainstream of Anglican thought (beautifully expressed in Hooker’s Lawes).
Something isn’t right
For example, we know from our conscience that there is evil in the world; we instinctively know that something ‘isn’t right’ even with human beings. We can use the full powers of reason to help us understand what has gone wrong. Evolutionary theory can help us explore where certain impulses have come from. However, there are limits to this: after all, why is it that humans are the only species which specialise in wiping one another out? As such, reason can take us only so far (once again, I speak here in harmony with Hooker, and his own muse Aquinas). To understand this problem further, from a Christian perspective we turn to revelation as articulated in Scripture. Genesis gives us the clue to this with its quasi-mythological account of the Fall of humankind. What does this ‘reveal’ about our predicament? That despite the claims of Heidegger, the Fall is not ontological, but rather historical. Questions of evolutionary history aside, the revelation is that God had an intention for humanity and that we have ‘fallen’ away from this. We have ‘rebelled’ and ‘gone our own way’. Indeed, the cause of the misery caused by human to human is ultimately because of this Fall. We call this ‘sin’. As ‘sin’ is a different quality of term to ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ in that it brings God into the picture, we would not know of its impact or true nature without Scripturally narrated revelation.
The Protestant Reformation built on the insights of Augustine and other Church Fathers by recognising that the Bible speaks of sin in holistic terms. Unlike the scholastic theology of the Medieval era, reason was not exempt from sin. The unfortunately named ‘total depravity’ did not mean that humans are completely depraved without any redemptive qualities; rather it meant that each part of our faculties, both mind and will, have been corrupted by sin. We have become almost like a computer hard drive corrupted by a scratch: it doesn’t stop doing computer-like things, but it may cause strange displays on the monitor. This is why the Reformers were in such strong disagreement with the Roman Catholics over concupiscence. Whereas the latter claimed it more as a human instinct which must be resisted, the Reformers argued that it had the character of sin, that is, it was a manifestation of our corrupt nature. God did not intend concupiscence. Later thinkers especially in the 20th Century have extended the Reformational insight by recognising that sin does not just affect individual souls but rather societal structures. Liberation, Feminist and Black theologies have demonstrated how unjust structures in society are not simply tendencies that need to be resisted, but the corruption of God’s intentions for human society (and therefore have the character of sin).
By introducing ‘sin’ as a revelatory category through which we can view the world, it gives us certain lenses for reading creation. Not everything that exists is intended by God. Not every human action is blessed by God. Not every human instinct is ontological. Furthermore, rather than seeing sin simplistically as wrong choices or missing the mark, the Augustinian tradition helps us see it more as an innate disposition from the corruption of the Will (or, in Pauline language, the problem of the ‘flesh’). This helps with making certain distinctions. For example, the disposition to lose one’s temper is an example of sinful corruption; this means that though losing one’s temper is itself sin, we can look at the person with sympathy recognising that though they may be the instigator of that sin, they are also a victim of it. Alternatively, depression is a consequence of sinful corruption; but to be depressed is not ‘committing a sin’ but rather the victim of our human predicament. In both circumstances, a disposition may be nurtured by the surrounding culture, which can help it become more or less prevalent. This helps us as a Church understand in what way we can participate in divine blessing: one cannot bless that which is against God’s intentions; it is a contradiction in terms in that all blessing has its roots in the ontology of divine blessing. We cannot bless the losing of the temper or the depression; we can bless the person who loses their temper or is a victim of depression.
The ethics of instinct
This is a principle that can extend across a variety of ethical issues. If we know that not all human instincts are ontological and blessed, but that they suffer from the consequences of corruption and fallenness, we need to prayerfully use our reasonable faculties to discern that which we bless. For example, is war part of God’s intentions for creation? No – it is an outworking of concupiscence which has the nature of sin. Nevertheless, as the just war tradition has noted there are occasions when war is necessary. The role of the Church is not to bless the war, but rather to offer pastoral support and comfort in the face of sin; we can indeed give a blessing to those soldiers who fight in the war as persons without necessarily blessing the war itself. This is why the Church does not ‘bless’ a divorce nor ritually celebrate it (even if as priests we may sometimes rejoice that a divorce has taken place after an abusive marriage). Instead we will offer support and comfort those who suffer the divorce. The Church of England has felt that as marriage is part of God’s revealed good intentions for creation (which we see through Scripture’s positive recognition of a natural instinct), remarriage is possible and therefore to be blessed when appropriate. The divorce as a tragic consequence of sinful corruption is not blessed; the God-intended marriage is.
This leads us onto discernment of sexual sin. It is clear that there are sexual evils; this is universally recognised. Every culture has sexual taboos which range from being considered as mere bad or perverse behaviour to genuine evil. For example, we are uncovering in the West the horrific extent of the paedophilic sexual evil. A Christian response, based on the theological principle of the revelation of sin corrupting nature, means that we must make an account of sexual sins too. It would be easy simply to lapse into conformity to the norms of Western culture of the day, which is to say a sexual evil is to do non-consensual sexual harm to another person. There is a truth to this: at the very least, I think this is in conformity with Scriptural revealed notions of the free dignity of human beings. But we must be careful: if sin does consist of total depravity, that is, the corrupting impact of sin in every faculty, this means that culture itself is suspect to sinful corruption. As such, we must be careful in simply confirming to cultural norms; they must always be read through the lens of Scripture. Furthermore, unlike Western culture, Scripture is not simply concerned with sexual evil, but more with sexual sin: that which is in contradiction to God’s good intentions for creation.
Whereas the fundamentalist may reduce our discernment of sexual sin to direct Scriptural citations, a classical Anglican approach would rather look at the structures of creation read through the lens of Scripture. Scripture indicates that sin has a moral impact; the body is left structurally untouched. In the creation myths, we only witness the gradual devolution of human decisions into barbarism; we do not read of any changes to the human body. The body is still (structurally) good; it is the Will which is corrupted. Sin has not caused the sprouting of extra arms and legs, but the distortion (and therefore ambiguity) of desire. Therefore, when approaching the questions of sexual sin, we must first acknowledge that the body itself is not structurally corrupted.
God’s intentions for sexuality
If we are to understand what God’s intentions for human sexuality are, we therefore cannot first look at sexual desire. A sexual desire may be innate; but that may be a consequence of concupiscence, rather than God’s intentions for human sexuality. Instead, if the body is not structurally corrupted we can look at the human body as a ‘clue’. And if we are looking at the problem of God’s intentions for sexuality, the focus of this clue lies in the sexual organs. It should not be problematic to claim that the functional purpose of the sexual aspects of genitalia is procreation. This is why they exist. If they didn’t exist for this purpose, they would not exist at all. Furthermore, procreation can only happen through male with female sexual acts. We can ‘read’ from the human body the clues for divine intentions for sexuality despite the consequences of fallenness. However, it is also clear that sexual acts are pleasurable. They are not merely functional. There is a ‘surplus’ to the act. From here develop questions about the extent of that surplus: can sex be only about the function with the surplus as a by-product? Hence, is artificial contraception against divine purposes? Are the function and surplus of equal weight? However we come to answer these questions, it should be clear that the surplus does not destroy the structure of the function: the sexual act structurally remains being between male and female. The goodness of God in adding pleasure to the function does not mean we are at liberty to apply the surplus outside the gendered context in which it was divinely intended. Therefore, at the very least we can see through the ‘clue of the body’ that God’s intentions in making these organs as functionally sexual was that male and female have pleasure (a surplus) when copulating. Sex is structurally designed by God for male and female. To put it crudely: the body tells the truth; the Will lies. If the body tells the truth, it is good, for a deceptive body would not be good. In that the body is good, we can see God’s good intentions for human sexuality through this basic fact.
If the principle of revelation of creational purposes means anything, it must mean this. Anything that goes away from this basic principle cannot be considered as part of God’s original intentions for human sexuality. Any desire which does not conform to this is ultimately a matter of concupiscence, the corrupting influence of sin. There are ethical questions that go outside of this basic principle nevertheless: is male/female non-reproductive sex permissible (i.e. what about birth control)? What about polygamy? What about divorce? What about consensual sadomasochistic sex? What about IVF? What about surrogate pregnancy? Although some may have direct Scriptural citations, others require Scriptural principles in combination with Scriptural citations (such as polygamy or divorce) or require rational thinking alone which though based on Scriptural principles cannot directly be informed by Scriptural citations (e.g. birth control, IVF and surrogate pregnancy). Nevertheless, all these ultimately still fall under the basic category of sex being exclusively for male/female coupling.
Creational structures in Scripture
If this is the case, then we would expect the rest of Scripture to follow this principle. And yes, we find it does. Whether that be Genesis, Leviticus, Jesus’ reference to creational structures regarding marriage, or Pauline narrations in Romans 1, the structure remains the same: the consequence of sinful corruption is a sexual distortion of the creational standard witnessed in Genesis 1 and 2. Despite the sometimes ingenious interpretations of liberal and queer hermeneutics, the supposed ‘clobber’ passages do fit into this creation-fall pattern. Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice nearly exhaustively runs through how Scripture repeatedly rejects same-sex practice as being against God’s purposes for sexuality. Though Gagnon does not always convince (and the book is somewhat pastorally blunt to the degree of offensiveness), the overall argument works. Indeed, Gagnon demonstrates how all Scriptural injunctions against sexual sins nearly always harmonise quite easily with the creation-fall principle.
Liberal and queer hermeneutics tend to take the individual ‘clobber’ passages and divorce them from this pattern of revealed creation and fallenness. The argument usually goes that the passage may not indicate that same-sex desire is an example of concupiscence and may refer to something else (inhospitality, pederasty, same-sex rape etc). Once this is done, other Scriptural principles are brought in (hospitality, justification by faith, eschatology etc) to ‘override’ the classical interpretation and/or indicate that the traditional pattern of marriage is destabilised by Christian sexual ethics (especially the removal of procreation from the soteriological economy, thereby paving the way for non-procreational sex). Finally, modern notions of same-sex relationships are argued to be compatible with Christian notions of holiness.
Where this always fails, however, is:
- there are no Scriptural citations or narratives in favour of same-sex desire (despite ahistorical attempts to make particular passages, such as David and Jonathan, pliable to such an interpretation);
- it goes against the whole principle of the goodness of creational structures despite the sinful corruption of the Will. It becomes a kind of eisegesis: not simply in the sense of reading something more into the passage than is immediately on the page, but rather reading an alien hermeneutical structure into the text. For example, Jesus’ inclusive ‘open table’ is often used as a hermeneutical principle which ‘overrides’ the supposed ‘clobber’ passages. And yes, Jesus radically shared meals with the prostitutes and corrupt tax collectors. It demonstrates the astonishing breadth of God’s grace. But the ‘open table’ principle does not mean ‘open approval’: Jesus does not bless prostitution nor teach a ‘kingdom inclusive’ form of the world’s oldest profession. Why? Because as the Kingdom is never in contradiction to the creational intention, Jesus invites repentance.
As such, liberal and queer hermeneutics destabilise the whole creation/fallenness principle. If, as orthodox theology has always maintained, creation and soteriology are not separate dogmatic loci but part of one great canvas, then we should not be expecting God to have changed his mind about creational purposes. This is why William Webb’s notion of Scriptural trajectories works so well: slavery and patriarchy cannot be creational goods in that they are contrary to the structural principles seen in Genesis 1 and 2: they are consequences of the Fall. Likewise with sexuality. Indeed, despite the polyvocal nature of Scripture on many issues, this is not one of them. Scripture’s voice is fairly consistent. If we read the more difficult passages of Scripture in the light of the clearer ones, then our understanding of sexuality must come through God’s creational intention seen through Genesis 1 and 2. Any eschatological interpretation cannot hide this fundamental fact. If we read same-sex desire as a creational good, then Heidegger is right: fallenness is ontological not historical, in that our sexual desires are naturally in contradiction to our created bodies. From a Christian perspective this must mean that God has created our will split from our physicality. God intended disharmony between body and soul for some unfortunate individuals. What is more, it implicitly makes an ontologically radical statement: the bodily structure cannot be relied on to help us discern God’s good intentions for sexuality. At best, the body would be ambiguous; at worst, the body would be deceptive. Either way, we could not claim that the body is ‘truthful’, and therefore not good.
Creation and redemption
Yet such an interpretation upsets the final axis of Scriptural interpretation: redemption. If the fall disjoints our wills and desires from our embodied created intentions, the incarnation and atonement brings harmony. The disjunction between body and soul is healed through the Cross and redemption of Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. Our eschatological future – ‘like the angels’ – is the completion of this original, pre-lapsarian trajectory of creation. The mark of this age is still the form of marriage as expressed through Genesis 2 (as Jesus argued). This still applies as God’s intention despite the Fall. It is possible to live in the light of the eschatological future, but what this indicates is that (if anything), our eschatological ethical preparation should mean more celibacy, not less, let alone forms of sexual activity outside the range of the original divine intention for this age. (This is where I find Robert Song’s otherwise ingenious interpretation fails, and unintentionally undermines his brilliant work theologically critiquing transhumanism.)
What convinced me most that this is the case is that in the early Church, despite ample opportunity to do so, there was no consideration given for blessing same-sex activity. It is not difficult to imagine the early Church looking at the wicked examples of pederasty in Greek culture and arguing, ‘there are holier ways of practising same-sex love’. Examples could easily have been given of loving same-sex couples in the Greek world. Furthermore, the argument could easily have been made that considering the eschatological non-procreational issues of sexuality raised by Jesus’ reference to being ‘like the angels’, early Christian theologians could have Christianised same-sex activity through notions of faithfulness and covenant. Considering the strangeness of Christian practice in comparison to the Mediterranean world as witnessed to by the contextually bizarre practices of virginity and celibate marriages, notions of same-sex blessing and even marriage could easily have developed in such an environment. It may even have helped with evangelising many a Greek man.
Yet we never find this. Despite many examples of Christian theologians speaking the philosophical and ethical language of Greek society, we never see them do so for sexuality. Indeed, quite the opposite: the language used is often harsh and uncompromising. Why? Because of the creation-fall-redemption principle. Though the early theologians did not work with the developed Augustinian framework of fallen corruption, it was nevertheless still there in embryonic form. Indeed, the answer to sexual desire which did not conform to the creational standard was stark: heterosexual marriage or (preferably) celibacy. There was no alternative.
Living in a post-Christian society
Then why only now are we facing the call for a change to Christian ethical practice on this matter? Simply because we are living in a post-Christian society. This means that we are living in an ethical system which is historically grounded in Christian principles (and therefore is sometimes eerily similar) but which has nevertheless taken some drastic turns away from its heritage. This is much the same as how Islamic ethics is rooted in both Christian and Jewish ethical practice but has nevertheless made some significant detours. As such, what we can call the Western Liberal metaphysical-ethical framework is not Christian though it shares some similarities. Like its Christian parent, the secular framework believes in the ontological dignity of the person. This fundamental agreement may mean we are sometimes blind to the fundamental disagreements. After all, unlike the Christian framework the secular framework is without reference to transcendence (namely the imago dei). Instead, we can define the secular framework as the worship of immanence. I use the term ‘worship’ deliberately here: secularism (perhaps paradoxically) is a religion, or perhaps more accurately a cluster of religions. It has its own metaphysics, practices, symbols, and ethics.
This might surprise people; but this is because we have too often defined religion by post-Reformational confessional standards. Robert Bellah in Religion in Human Evolution has argued that religion has a fundamental role to play in human evolution – it cannot simply vanish, but rather changes. It is anthropologically impossible to have a non-religious society. Tomoko Masuzawa has argued in The Invention of World Religions that religion has been defined by Western standards, which tend to emphasise supernatural beings, a pattern which does not fit into the patterns of many religions. According to this interpretation, religion has been badly defined. Charles Taylor in A Secular Age has mapped the genealogy of secularism out of the unintended consequence of the Franciscan revival – demonstrating its religious genetics. Neo-Calvinists such as Abraham Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd and James K.A. Smith, liberal Implicit Theology studies, and Radical Orthodox theologians such as John Milbank have all demonstrated the religious motivations of secularism. If it is impossible to not be religious, and secularism has religious roots and motivations, and secularism is not Christianity, then it is a non-Christian religion. And once again like the Christian Middle East suffering from the cultural pressure to become Muslimesque Christians in the centuries after the Arab invasions, Christians are facing the pressure to convert or adapt Christianity to this new faith.
The worship of immanence
If secularism is the worship of immanence, one of the consequences is that the Will rather than the body becomes the location for discerning truth. (Paradoxically, the Will is smuggled in as the new location of transcendence.) This has a genealogy that stretches from Hume (‘reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions’), Fichte and Schopenhauer, via Nietzsche through to Heidegger, Sartre, Foucault and Butler. In this view, the body is ambiguous and not to be trusted; it is the Will which is true and good. As this has gradually permeated into the ethical and liturgical life of secularism, sex has become a sacrament for immanent fulfilment in that the desires of the Will are liberated through sex. To deny someone Willed consensual sex – however that is expressed – is considered not only a denial of their personhood, but offends the deepest convictions of the most prominent secular spirituality: that fulfilment can only be found in the immanent frame mediated through the Will. In contradiction to Christianity, the sexual surplus defines the function; the body must conform to the Will. If the meaning of personhood can be found in immanence, and sex acts in a sacramental function within this framework, then it is no surprise that same-sex activity is seen to be so important: it is the perfect realisation of self-fulfilment through sexual practice in that the sexual function is completely subsumed by the Willed surplus. Sex has no reference here to bodily function but is an autonomous mode of pleasure.
Therefore, when faced with the cultural pressure to recognise (or in theological language, ‘bless’) this secular-sacramental function, we must remember that it does not come from a Christian framework. There is no sense of the creation-fall-redemption narrative which structures Christian ethics. Indeed, it contradicts this framework: the Will rather than body is now the arbiter of truth and goodness. To put it bluntly, to bless same-sex activity is a call to syncretism. It combines aspects of secular metaphysical ethics – human sexual desire is blessed and sanctified in the consensual sexual act – with Christian metaphysics – human sexual desire is God-given. Were we missionaries freshly encountering a foreign culture dealing with the cultural pressure to conform to their religious framework, though we would listen we would recognise the core ethical principles that separate us. But we are not fresh missionaries; we are witnessing the collapse of Christianity in the West to a more successful religion, akin to the collapse of Middle Eastern Christianity to Islam between the 7th and 11th Centuries. Therefore, we are more likely to heed this call to fundamentally adapt Christian ethics to the secular framework: massive loss is always psychologically more difficult to cope with than meagre gain. This is doubly difficult in that we are the church established by law.
Reading secularism theologically
Perhaps by putting it in such stark terms, I may make some scoff. But if we do not read secularism as religious then we are buying into the claims secularism makes of itself rather than reading it theologically. That said, like pagan Platonism before it, we should not read secularism in a Manichaean sense: there are things that secularism has done which has opened our eyes to the Scriptures in new ways. Secular Feminism, for example, has forced us to re-evaluate our understanding of what Scripture says about women’s ministry; we have discovered that it can function well within the creation-fall-redemption framework (that patriarchy is a sign of fallen corruption, and equality between the sexes is a creation intention). Similarly, secularism has forced us to re-evaluate how we treat our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters. Indeed, it has exposed our cruelty, our hypocrisy, our horrendous and even demonic lack of Christian love. Thank God that he has used secularism to open our eyes! And for this my own Evangelical constituency must come to a place (and is gradually getting there) of unreserved repentance for the ways in which we have spoken with tongues of poison rather than love, the ways we have ignored LGBTQ+ voices and narcissistically enjoyed the echoes of our own; the ways we have isolated and excluded the members of this community for whom Jesus died, the ways we have caused excruciating existential angst when causing people to go through such awful practices as conversion therapy. May God forgive us.
In light of our sinful practices listed above, it is understandable that we would do anything to make amends. It is why I would consider myself a ‘reluctant conservative’ on this question. But nevertheless, our cultural surroundings in modern secularism cannot trump revelation. Radical cultural dislocation is no reason for changing doctrine – even if it causes problems with evangelism. If this were the case, then we must be consistent: we must accept that Christian opposition to the caste system poses evangelistic problems in Hindu India; that our defence of the equality of women poses evangelistic problems in the Muslim Middle East; that our opposition to polygamy poses evangelistic problems to sub-Saharan Africa. To say otherwise is to make the more problematic and tone-deaf statement that Western culture is innately superior to others. In which case, a century of post-colonial theory has been ignored; we have returned to Victorian imperialism; we are, to quote the prophet Elijah, no better than our ancestors.
But if we are to be consistent, we must also claim that the Fathers were wrong for interpreting the creation-fall-redemption framework to mean that same-sex relationships could not be blessed. Further back than that, we must claim that Paul was wrong for interpreting same-sex activity as a sinful consequence of human rebellion. Let us be brutally honest: Jesus was wrong for grounding Christian marriage in Genesis 1 and 2. We must upset the whole balance of the creation-fall-redemption revelation: body-soul disjunction is ontological not historical. We allow our cultural framework to judge what is ‘fallen’, not what Scripture declares. We must accept that for the Gospel to be culturally viable, it must submit to the ethical norms of its host culture. It is not difficult to imagine Western culture change its views on polygamy in future years and placing the same cultural and psychological pressure for Christians to adapt its ethics to such a framework. We would currently say ‘No’, but thirty years ago we would have said the same for same-sex relationships. To be logically consistent, we must succumb to that pressure too if it comes. And it is a strong possibility: we are already seeing the stirrings of people wanting polyamorous relationships to have some kind of recognition. Because we will have given up on the creation-fall-redemption revelatory framework outlined in Scripture, we are building on the sands of secularism.
The ethics of creation-fall-redemption
If the principle of creation-fall-redemption revelation witnessed to in Scripture is to have any meaning at all, it is in this ethical area. If the Bible is to have any authoritative standard other than as an advisory textbook, we cannot bless that which is the consequence of fallenness, a symptom of concupiscence, a disposition tragically imposed by the corruption of the Will. We cannot bless that which God has not blessed. It may seem ridiculous to the secular world that this – of all issues – could cause such divisions, especially in a religious purported to be about love. But then again, the controversy over the proposition for adding a little iota to the Nicene Creed would seem ridiculous to the pagan world, and to all the Edward Gibbons ever after. Yet that little iota was the chasm which separated orthodox Christianity from Arian syncretism.
Of course, through God’s grace he can work his love through fallenness – otherwise the Cross would have no meaning! Gay couples can express the deepest love and commitment which should shame many a heterosexual couple. They can be a channel of grace to those scarred by the cruelty of a sinful world. But this channel of grace does not mean that the Church can bless that which is a consequence of the Fall, anymore than can it bless Buddhist teaching – though it can bless the grace and compassion found in Buddhism. We can rejoice that God can demonstrate his redemptive love through a gay couple as much as through a Buddhist monk; indeed, arguably more so when the couple are faithful Christians. This is where your argument for ‘knowing them by their fruits’ becomes confusing: I believe that the fruits found in the lives of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela are a foretaste of the Kingdom; does this mean I should bless their respective adultery and polygamy too? Of course not – we are able to distinguish the fruit of their lives without condoning aspects which are not. A gay couple can undoubtedly bring good fruit; it does not mean that we should bless the relationship as a marriage.
We must ultimately interpret the gay couple’s relationship not as marriage or a blessed quasi-marriage. Rather we must see it as friendship. Not the shallow, secular notion of friendship; rather the deep friendship love seen in Jesus Christ (and classical tradition before him), a friendship that is a love stronger than death, a friendship which surpasses understanding. Yes, this means recognising that same-sex activity within this friendship is not as God intended for creation; but this does not mean separating this friendship. Instead, we must have patience in allowing God’s grace to make it a place of holiness. We must walk alongside gay couples in pastoral care, not hiding the Church’s teaching, but also not cruelly condemning. It’s a difficult balance to make, and will take decades to work out. But in a similar way to how indigenous African Christianity is working out how to teach Christian monogamy in a polygamous culture, and how indigenous Indian Christianity is learning to teach Christian equality in a caste-ridden culture, we must allow a new indigenous Western Christianity to emerge which preaches to a secular religion of sexual sacramentality. We are already seeing this with some of the brilliant theological work being done by ‘Side B’ Christians which demonstrate one can live as a LGBTQ+ person and draw even on Queer theology yet still be faithful to classical Christian teaching. But this is still in embryonic form: much more work must be done.
Living in exile
I know that in writing this letter it will cause hurt and pain to many of my dear, dear friends who have faithfully and exhaustively searched the Scriptures and found a different answer to my own. It will also cause much disappointment to many of my gay friends, whom I dearly love. For causing this hurt, pain, and sadness I am sorry. Yet I hope through this letter to you, Steven, that the reasons for why I have felt the need to respond to your call to change church teachings. To sum up, it destabilises the creation-fall-redemption revelatory pattern by making the Will, not the body, the location of truth and goodness, in contradiction to orthodox teaching. We are considering this change as a Church because of the pressures of a newly dominant secular religion. To make this change in Church teaching would therefore be syncretism with the ethical and metaphysical principles of a pagan faith. We are in a difficult time, not seen in Christianity since the breakdown of Christendom in the Middle East after the Arab invasions. Like how the Babylonian exile taught Israel the error of their ungodly ways, our cultural exile through the rise of a secular faith has illuminated us to the cruel and ungodly ways we have treated members of the LGBTQ+ community. But we cannot reject scripturally-expressed, God-given revelation. Instead, like Daniel ministering in Babylon, we must serve our culture faithful to faith handed down to us. Even if it does mean on occasion being thrown into the lion’s den.
Yours in Christ,
Joshua Penduck is the Rector of Newcastle-under-Lyme, St Giles with St Thomas, Butterton, in the Diocese of Lichfield. Prior to ordination he was a composer and has written music for the LSO, BCMG and Orkest de Ereprijs. He is married to Shelley, who is also an Anglican minister in Stoke-on-Trent. This article was originally published at Fulcrum.