Shhh….It’s Secret!!

by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham and Member of General Synod

Rosie Haarper

‘The vows you are about to take are made in the presence of God, who is judge of all and knows all the secrets of our hearts.’

I get the point. The truth is the truth even when it is well hidden.

If you believe in a personal God who relates to you rather like a human but with super-powers, then this is a bit creepy. A bit like a cosmic stalker. As a child I used to worry about this idea that God was watching me all the time; not just seeing what I was doing (even going to the loo) but knowing my thoughts and my motives. When I was about eight I accidentally broke an elegant large green vase that my father had just given my mother for their wedding anniversary. Money was tight and I knew he’d saved up hard to afford it and she was delighted with the gift. I worked out that the best strategy was to deal with it straight away. ‘Mummy, Daddy, I’ve done something awful and I’m so, so sorry. You are going to hate me.’ ‘Darling , you know we would never hate you.’ I thought that if I went in hard like that they’d imagine something monumental and be relieved that it was only a broken vase. The strategy worked a treat. I overheard them talking later and although they were fed up about the breakage they were so proud of their daughter who had been really contrite and had owned up to her mistake. I felt terrible. A real sense of shame. Not so much because I’d been manipulative but because of the weight of thinking that God knew and was disappointed in me.

What we choose to reveal and what we choose to hide. It’s powerful stuff, and mostly it is driven by fear and shame.

There are good secrets.

That delicious time when only you know you are pregnant! When you are engaged but haven’t told anyone yet. Maybe, I wouldn’t know of course, when you have won the lottery and keep it under your hat.  But most good secrets are transitory. You hug your good news for a while and then have great fun sharing it.

There are sensible secrets.

I’m guess that you, like me, think it is wise to keep some stuff about yourself under wraps. I have grown less and less prone to doing that. For example, I made myself a promise that I would try never to preach anything I didn’t believe. I don’t like that script that says ‘if only they knew what I really think.’

Then there are bad secrets.

The most obvious is the abuser who tells their victim ‘this is our special secret’ This is a hugely powerful way of exerting control. For a child there is a toxic mixture of shame and fear that can chase them through the rest of their lives.

Secrets that are imposed are usually abusive, and the bible is not at all keen on such secrets: Mark 4.22 – ‘Everything that is hidden will be made clear and every secret thing will be made known.’

The biblical principle seems to be that openness, transparency and mutual accountability are the way to go.

So why is the Church rife with bad secrets? It operates at a personal level.

Lizzie Lowe had a secret. She should never have had to believe it should be a secret. Sadly such was the Church culture that she believed her secret  – that she was gay –  was so shameful that it drove her to take her life. Many, many other men and women have kept their sexuality secret, sometimes even from themselves, and it has almost destroyed them.

It also operates at an institutional level in a weirdly inverted way. Churches are one of the very worst places for confidentiality, and the leaky sieve is usually prayer.

In the realm of the hierarchy of the C of E secrecy comes naturally.

We are all waiting for ‘Living in Love and Faith’ – the work is hidden. There are, I believe, copies circulating but not for the plebs. If the Pilling Report process and text had been less secret squirrel we might have been able to challenge the ridiculous reliance on cod-science. Secrecy rarely make things better, but it does make those in the inner circle feel important.

At General Synod we have the opportunity to ask questions. The idea is that we hold our seniors accountable, but the whole process is risible. Almost every answer amounts to ‘I am sorry I can’t tell you that  – it’s secret.’ I asked how many Non-Disclosure Agreements the Church has entered into and the answer was exactly that. Sorry Rosie  – it’s secret.

It’s a fine demonstration that information is power. It matters because the NDAs mean that victims have to choose between financial recompense and bringing their wrongs into the light so that others can learn from them. The Church likes them because it saves them an expensive court case, the perpetrator because no-one gets to know what they have done and they may even be free to do it again, but the survivor gets given an other secret and of course secrets is often where it all began  – they are still being controlled. In most cases NDAs are abusive. Secular society is recognizing this but the Church holds on tightly to its culture of secrets.

There is a parallel biblical strand about darkness and light. The very best thing about flying is leaving a dark rainy airport and rising above the clouds. And I sit by the window and feel the sunshine on my cheek and bathe in the light, and feel nearer to God.

We are called to walk in the light…



Posted in Human Sexuality, IICSA, Rosie Harper, Sexual abuse, Spiritual Abuse | 1 Comment

Does the Bible Really Say…that Creation is Straight?

by the Revd Canon Dr Simon Taylor, Canon Chancellor of Derby Cathedral

Does the Bible - Creation is Straight

Credit where it is due, whoever first coined ‘God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’ has a real gift for slogans and headlines.  But not, I fear, for theology.

One of the loudest arguments for the exclusion of same-sex relationships from the Church has been the complementarian position that marriage is by definition male and female.  In turn this is based on an understanding of creation in which human beings are made and meant to be male and female.

Creation, in other words, is straight.

Complementarian readings underlie the arguments against equal marriage in official Church documents from a number of churches, and can be found across the traditions of the Church from Roman Catholics to free evangelicals.

But I am far from convinced that this is the right way to be reading Scripture.  What I propose to do in this post is to look at some key Biblical texts and then to see if a larger Biblical vision might be offered.

Genesis 1.27-8

The first key text, foundational to complementarian arguments, is Genesis 1.27-28:

“So God created humankind in his image,

in the image of God he created them

male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’”

This is a rich passage, which stands at the root of whole tradition of human rights.

A complementarian reading of this passage attends carefully to the way in which the image of God structures humanity as male and female.  Combined with the injunction to procreation, this is then taken to require heterosexual relationships.

There are, however, serious difficulties with this approach:

First, it is in danger of requiring couplings of male and female in order to display the image of God.  What then do we have to say for single people?

Second, it takes the command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ as a command for every couple, rather than for the species as a whole.  What then of the childless, the elderly and the infertile?

Third, it loses the way the passage insists that the image of God is seen in women as well as in men. This has not, through the history of humanity and the history of the Church, been something seen as obvious.  Sexual relationships have been constituted as expressions of male power, underwritten by a male God.  Genesis 1.27-28 begs to differ.

There is an important role for Genesis 1.27-28 in structuring human relationships and society.  All human beings are to be seen as reflecting God’s image, across the whole variety of humanity.  As a species, humans are to value their children.  Valuing males over females is not consistent with the creation of people.  To read this passage as asserting that only a male-plus-female partnership is valid is to endanger its power to support human flourishing.

Genesis 2.18-24

At the end of the second creation story in Genesis, God creates woman from the rib of man.  The passage ends with the writer’s comment that:

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2.24).

This text has also been taken to support a complementarian account of human relationships.  The ‘one flesh’ that derives from marriage is taken to require a man and a woman.

Again, there are problems with this reading: 

First, the ‘one flesh’ that Genesis 2.24 speaks about is an expression of kinship, not of sexual relations.  ‘One flesh’ could be polygamous, and often is in the Old Testament.  Despite this being the ‘go-to text’ for monogamy, the marriage envisioned is not simply the pairing of a man and a woman.

Second, the order in which the man and woman are created has been taken to imply the subordination of women, 1 Timothy 2.11-15 being a prime example.  Yet we have already seen that Genesis 1.27-28 is seeking to deny such subordination.

Third, Genesis 2.24 needs to be read as part of the whole story, which begins at verse 18.  To read the final verse in isolation misses the whole point of the story.

In the story of Genesis 2, God creates the animals so that the ‘man’ (adam), the first human person, should not be alone. As the first human names the animals, none is found to be a helper and partner. But there is a real sense that they might have been.  Then God creates woman from the flesh of the first human.  Again, the human names the creature woman (‘ishah) and names himself man (‘ish).

The force of the story is on the consent of the person, and the delight of the man in the woman.  Consent and delight are what structures this story.  Gareth Moore writes of “the final bankruptcy of the compulsory heterosexuality interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve.  Not only does it misrepresent God as one who imposes his will regardless of human delight, but … it completely undermines the dynamic that leads to the creation of Eve.”[i]

Matthew 19.3-9

Both Genesis 1.27-28 and Genesis 2.24 are brought together by Jesus:

“Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’” (Matthew 19.4-5).

The complementarian argument here is that this gives the authority of Jesus to their interpretations of Genesis, and does so clearly in a discussion about marriage.  When Jesus speaks of marriage, they argue, he does so in a complementarian model of male and female.

I see nothing in this passage that changes the force of the readings I have offered of the two Genesis passages.  Indeed, I would be happy to see Jesus reinforcing the assertion of Genesis 1 that women are fully human, and the assertions of Genesis 2 that consent and joy are at the heart of all human relationships.  Nothing that Jesus says in Matthew’s account need be understood as requiring a complementarian account of human beings.

A Broader Biblical Vision

Recently, N. T. Wright has spoken of the Bible as:

“an entire narrative which works with this complementarity so that a male-plus-female marriage is a signpost or a signal about the goodness of the original creation and God’s intention for the eventual new heavens and new earth.”[ii]

Respectfully, I want to disagree with this.  I hope the readings above demonstrate the ways in which I disagree with Wright on the way that creation is read as male-plus-female.

It may be worth briefly thinking about Wright’s assertion that “a male-plus-female marriage is a signpost.”  The great Biblical vision of marriage and the new creation is of the people of God as a bride (Isaiah 62.4-5; Revelation 19.6-9). Notice here that the entirety of God’s people are described as female, as a bride.

If we read from the Scriptures to the people of God without any further thought or insight, we might find ourselves requiring all God’s people to be female.  Rather than arguing about whether women can take leadership roles in the Church, or whether we can have women bishops, we might find we need books and articles explaining why men can be Christians at all.  The image of the bride is gendered.

Yet I am not aware of any theologian or interpreter of the Bible that has taken that image as determining the gender of individuals within the people of God.  Even if the creation narratives do speak of a complementary relationship between male and female at the heart of creation, it is a quite different theological move to require such a relationship of every individual person or couple within God’s people.

If creation does not require a complementarian view of human relationships; and a better approach to signposting would be helpful; what then of the broad narrative of Scripture?

I want to suggest a broad reading of the story of God and his creation, that is rooted in reconciliation, and which would bring all human relationships into the story as potentially speaking of the love of God for his creation.

Key to this understanding is Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.  Paul writes:

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God” (Ephesians 2.13-22).

At the heart of God’s purposes is the bringing together of all things and all people, however far off they may once have seemed.  The death of Christ brings everyone into one new humanity, putting hostility to death.  All are reconciled to God in one body, and no one is a stranger or an alien, but citizens and saints.

The picture here is one of the fullness of God and of creation, with all things reconciled and built together into a place where God can live.  There is difference, but it is reconciled, no longer requiring hostility between different groups.  And there is a wide range of difference that has been reconciled: male and female, Jew and gentile, married and single, different races and nations, people of different sexualities and different gender identities.

Is this reconciliation easy? No, it is costly and requires working out.  But the cost was paid by Christ in his death.  The working out starts from there.

The Bible calls us to a bigger and fuller vision of God and his creation.  But that vision is not structured by human relationships, but by Christ in whom “the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God” (Ephesians 2.21-22).

Complementarian readings of Scripture are in danger of getting this the wrong way round, which results in structuring Christ around human relationships.  To limit the Biblical vision to a simple ‘male-plus-female’ is to limit the creative and reconciling power of God.

Creation is not straight, it is full of difference, all of which is reconciled into one new humanity through Jesus.


[i] Gareth Moore OP, A Question of Truth: Christianity and Homosexuality (London and New York: Continuum, 2003), p. 143.

[ii] Matthew Schmitz, ‘N. T. Wright on Gay Marriage: Nature and narrative point to complementarity’, [Accessed 14.7.19.]

About the Author

simon picture April 19

The Revd Canon Dr Simon Taylor is Canon Chancellor of Derby Cathedral.  He is the author of two books, including How to Read the Bible (without switching off your brain) (SPCK, 2015). 

He is soon to take up a new role as Director of Ministry Development in the Diocese of Bristol.


Posted in Does the Bible Really Say, Guest Contributors, Human Sexuality, Simon Taylor | 3 Comments

Does the Bible Really Say…that Baptism Should be Withheld from Some People?

by the Rt Revd David Gillett, Principal of Trinity College, Bristol (1988-1999) and former Bishop of Bolton (1999-2008)

Does the Bible - David

Sadly, there are often stories one hears of the Church excluding people, but this is especially sad when it comes to baptism – the entry door where we welcome people into God’s family.

One baptized gay friend of mine told me how his parish priest had agreed – with great reluctance – that he could be a godparent for his sister’s new baby boy. However, he would not be allowed to stand around the font with the rest of his family and friends – he must stand on his own at the far corner of the church!  At about the same time as he told me his experience – in June of last year – the Presbyterian Church in Ireland passed a resolution declaring that same-sex couples could not receive communion nor could their children be baptised.

Thankfully, there is another side to this story of exclusion, and many of us in increasing numbers agree with the response of the Corrymeela community to the position of the Church out of which it grew:

“Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people – whether single or in relationships; with our families; with our friends; with our faith, doubts, experiences and insights —- are a gift of God to our society.

Corrymeela began in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. We are now joyfully an open ecumenical community with 170 members … these decisions deny and demean those who have already suffered enough at the hands of society and Christianity…

We assert: You are dignified, welcome and safe. Your faith, families and relationships are honoured. We say this not in spite of our own belief in faith and reconciliation but because of it.”

Turning to the Church of England, (which is my main focus in this article) its website strikes a fully welcoming note in reference to baptism. It tells enquirers who are looking for basic information on what the church is about:

“The Church of England welcomes all babies, children and families for christenings – whatever shape that family takes. You do not have to be married or to have been a regular churchgoer – as a parent, you do not even have to have been baptised yourself – though you could be. Everyone is welcome at their local church.”

Among other gestures of open-hearted welcome, this clearly says, ‘Yes’ to gay and lesbian people who are parents. There is something deep in the DNA of Christian faith that impels us to receive and welcome all who come to us – our first instinct is naturally to want to extend the loving welcome of God in Christ. Of course, in the baptism service itself, the godparents or the adult candidates will go on to make a profession of faith but this follows on from the wholehearted and sincere welcome which has first been extended – the kind of welcome that Jesus demonstrated when the disciples were minded to be exclusionary in their approach.  Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (Matthew 13f)

And, speaking personally I was delighted when a gay friend of mine asked me to become a godparent to his adopted child – he is one of the best dads I know!

This declared pastoral approach in the Church of England (as in other denominations) reflects the outcome of the quick thinking which no doubt Philip had to do when the Ethiopian Eunuch made his request for baptism– ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ In this case, as the enquirer was both a eunuch and a Gentile he did not fulfill the usual requirements to which Philip was accustomed. Many would have excluded him from full involvement in the worshiping community. In Philip’s eyes, following Jesus’ example, the Ethiopian’s difference was no bar to full inclusion. (Acts 8.26-40)

In support of this approach, the Church of England’s Canon B22, Of the Baptism of Infants, explains the duty of every parish priest: ‘No minister shall refuse or, save for the purpose of preparing or instructing the parents or guardians or godparents, delay to baptise any infant within his cure that is brought to the church to be baptized …’ Other churches may feel free to make exclusions for LGBT people or parents but ministers in the Church of England are instructed to welcome all to the baptismal font.

However, this welcoming attitude is not reflected in every local Church of England.  The website of one says to enquirers: “Again, because the child is to be baptised into the church family, any children baptised need their parents to be regular members. Our policy is not to baptise the children of unmarried parents.”

This is clearly not the approach of most parish churches, but some are still hesitant, unlike Philip, when confronted with a ‘new kind of enquiry.’ Hesitation can so easily lead to rejection.

Happily, as this next story shows, when one priest said NO, the priest in a neighbouring parish was totally positive and welcoming in his response. This is how he recounted the story to me:

‘When I received a call, I could tell that the caller was quite hesitant and nervous. I heard a voice ask if she could have her daughter christened at my church. I said Yes that would be lovely and wed love to do that. It was then she said, Is it ok as we are two mums? We went to another church and they were difficult. Its ok if not.”’

I said we would love to christen your daughter and I look forward to meeting you all soon. The sense of delight when we all met was wonderful. It was sad to hear the rejection they experienced when approaching other churches.

 It was a delight when two years later I received another call from the same couple to say they would like to have another christening – even though theyd moved. They wanted to come back because they had felt so loved and had received an amazing welcome. When the church (and therefore to many God) has been felt to say a big No, its really wonderful to see the joy of a big Yes – and the beauty of Gods welcome and inclusive love in action.  Both services were a real joy to all the family and friends – but also to our congregation too.’

Such stories of welcome and celebration for the children of same sex parents are a clear outworking of the official pastoral and legal position in the Church of England.

However, there are those who wish to exclude LGBTQ+ individuals, families and their children in different ways. For some this may be because they are unclear about how to deal with the relatively new situation of civil partnerships and equal marriage. For instance, a few years ago, a priest in the south of England made the national press when he said that he was unable to cope with the request of a lesbian couple to have their child baptized because there were no appropriate columns in the baptism register for two mothers.  He suggested that one should be named ‘mother’, the other one, ‘godmother’ – a suggestion that they naturally found totally unacceptable.

Fortunately, the church lawyers have subsequently made the position quite clear. The Legal Advisory Commission of the General Synod issued their opinion in 2017:

where persons of the same sex share parental responsibility their names should both be inserted in the same gender specific column, namely Father’s name or Mother’s name.”

If there are growing pains in how to deal with the children of same sex parents – though by now it should be fairly clear what to do in the Church of England – for some this is a more acutely theological issue when one or both within a same sex marriage ask for baptism.

For those of us who accept the inclusivity of marriage this presents no problems but allows us to rejoice with the couple in their new found faith and welcome them fully into membership of the Church. For those, however, who consider such relationships unacceptable, they may well feel constrained to refuse baptism. The legal position in such a case would be for the couple to appeal to the bishop who is likely to suggest that some other priest who is willing should be asked to conduct the baptism.

However, most churches will hopefully continue to see baptism as the sacrament of welcome, mindful of the bishops’ guidelines which state:

Those same sex couples who choose to marry should be welcomed into the life of the worshiping community and not be subjected to questioning about their lifestyle. Neither they nor any children they care for should be denied access to the sacraments.’ (Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage 15/02/2014)”

We are clearly not of in the same position as the Presbyterian Church in Ireland which refuses baptism to those in a same sex marriage and to their children. On the other hand it is The United Reform Church, the Episcopal Church in Scotland, and increasingly the Methodist Church in these islands that have been leading the way out of the pastoral confusion and missionary challenges of failing to embrace a fully inclusive and welcoming vision for the whole of humanity.

Meanwhile, the situation in the Church of England is reflected in some words of the Archbishop of Canterbury:  “I find myself deeply torn … On the issue of what, in English law, is called equal marriage … I personally am conservative on this. But I am equally convinced that it may be that I am wrong. I think part of Anglican theology is always an assumption that you need to go on listening. Anglican theological methodology never closes things down.” (ACC 2019)

Many of us are frustrated by the Church of England’s ponderously slow and drawn out process of deciding on full equality for LGBTQ+ people. At times it can seem to many that there is a deliberate policy of delay in facilitating progress towards the eventual acceptance of equal marriage. However, in contrast, there is a clear acceptance that baptism is fully inclusive. Meanwhile we are in the ironic situation where baptism, the foundation sacrament within the Church, is open to all whereas lawfully married same sex couples are barred from both a church marriage and the possibility of ordination.

The hope and prayers of an increasing number from all traditions within the Church – be they catholic, reformed, liberal or evangelical, formal or informal – are focused on full equality for LGBTQ+ people in all sacraments and ordinances from baptism through the whole of life – for themselves, their partners and their ministries.

About the Author

David Gillett sq

The Rt Revd David Gillett, former Bishop of Bolton writes: ‘As a Theologian-Pastor, my views, like many other Christians have developed over time since my M.Phil dissertation of 50 years ago explored approaches to sexuality in the bible. Since then I have been a lecturer at St John’s College, Nottingham and Principal of Trinity College Bristol, interspersed with ministry as youth worker, vicar, peace worker, and bishop. My academic/teaching interests are in the areas of Old Testament, World Religions and Spirituality.’


Posted in Bishop David Gillett, Does the Bible Really Say, Human Sexuality | 4 Comments

Does the Bible Really…Advocate the “Nuclear Family”

by the Very Revd Prof Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford


Does the Bible

 ‘Agrapha’ is not a word in common use.  But it usually refers to sayings attributed to Jesus in other parts of the New Testament, but which we don’t find in the gospels.  There are not many of them, but one of the best examples comes from Acts 20:35: “Remember the word of the Lord Jesus, how he said: It is a more blessed thing to give, rather than to receive”.  Jesus might have said this – but the gospels don’t record that.  But we know that Plato and Aristotle said similar things, centuries before.  Then there is pseudepigrapha – things Jesus and the Scriptures never said, but people think are in the Bible anyway. Such as ‘God helps those who help themselves’.

So what of ‘nuclear family’? It sounds biblical, doesn’t it? I mean, the way that so many in the Church talk about it being sacred and fundamental to society, and the foundation of Christendom, you could be forgiven for thinking that Christianity was right behind the nuclear family.  But I beg to differ. Jesus advocated leaving one’s parents for the sake of the Kingdom. The siblings too, got some short shrift from Jesus. He told his disciples to go do likewise, more or less.  Moreover, don’t even think about loitering at your parents’ funerals; there is kingdom work to be done. The dead can bury the dead.

The Bible contains many patterns of family life. Some include slaves, such as Hagar, with Abraham and Sarah. In Genesis 16, we read that Hagar becomes a surrogate mother to raise a child for the couple.  Family dynamics are complicated at the best of times, but the Old Testament offers us dozens – literally – of ‘family patterns’, which should not necessarily be honoured today.

For example, few Christians would condone the family dynamics set out in Genesis 29-30, in which Rachel obligingly lends Bilhah (who is Rachel’s slave or handmaid) to Jacob so that they can have a son.  Rachel says this: “Here’s my handmaid Bilhah. Go have sex with her. She can bear children on my knees so I can have children through her” (International Standard Version). So even the birth of their son (he is named Dan) is an intimate three-way affair.

Rachel’s sister, Leah, who when she later realises she cannot have children either, follows suit and lends her woman servant Zilpah to Jacob too, such is their sibling rivalry.  Under this biblical family pattern, Jacob is sleeping with at least four women at any one time, and all under the approving eye of Rachel and Leah’s father, Laban, who offers both his daughters to Jacob (Genesis 29).

It should come as no surprise to most people that the word ‘nuclear’ is not in the bible.  But it comes as a much greater surprise to the same number that ‘family’ is not really a term biblical either – if by that, we mean husband, wife and 2.4 children.  The families that Jesus knew in his day were, on the whole, rather more extended affairs. They were ‘households’ (oikos is the Greek word that the New Testament uses), and they were extensive, not intensive; externalised rather than internalised.

More on this in a moment, but to set this in context, a question for starters.  Was Jesus a good person because of his nature, or due to his nurture?  A tutorial question I sometimes used to set for undergraduates was to spot the connection between Moses, the Buddha, Mohammed and Jesus.  True, they are all great religious leaders.  And yes, they all founded major world religions.

But there is also something stranger that connects them.  They are all adopted.  Moses was abandoned by his birth mother and left to float in a small coracle in the River Nile, and had the good fortune to be picked up by the daughter of one of the Pharaohs, and nurtured as one of her own.  Mohammed was orphaned at the age of six, or perhaps earlier, and was brought up by his uncle in the ancient city of Makka.  The Buddha’s mother died when he was less than a week old, and he was raised by her sister.  Jesus, of course, according to Christian orthodoxy is not exactly the child of Joseph, since Christian tradition claims no human intervention in his genesis.  Although Mary is clearly his mother, Joseph is not his biological father.

As for the nature-nurture equation, one has to remember that the early church was not a new kind of eclectic synagogue; or for that matter, another recent addition to the long list of temple cults that were available. Rather, the early church chose to base itself on the model of another venerable institution: the oikos, or ‘household’.  This formed the nucleus of what we now call ‘church’.

Now, an oikos was not the cosy insular home like today’s ideal ‘nuclear family’. An oikos was something else – an extended household incorporating kith and kin, servants, slaves, tutors, workers, dependents and contributors.  It was an outward-facing and inclusive body that took to adoption quite naturally.  It understood that just as God had adopted us, so we, in turn, were to adopt others.  And as God had abided with us, so were we to abide with others.  Jesus, as ever, modelled not just church, but society.

So in the early church, we find Jews Greeks and Romans; slave and free; male and female.  All are one in Christ.  In these new assemblies of believers, all were equal.  Today, churches rarely think about their identity in self-conscious ways.  They mostly go about their business assuming their values, and implicitly imbibing these from one generation to the next.  But we might pause and reflect here, on the ways in which the church acts as a proto-typical adoptive agency within society.  Thus, welcoming the strangers and aliens in their midst, and not only giving to them, but also receiving from them.

And one key to understanding this, in ecclesial terms, is to see that the dynamic of adoption is one of those implicit values that lie at the heart of the Church and healthy society.  That is to say, just as churches, congregations and individuals Christians understand or experience themselves as, in some sense, ‘adopted’ by God (as Paul suggests), so they in turn, find themselves adopting others. And the facets of adoption, though plentiful in ecclesial life, remain largely implicit in churches – embedded in everyday acts of charity and hospitality, yet rarely reflected upon.

When most people think about adoption, it is a habit of the heart to believe that it is the child who has somehow been rescued, and that the adopted parents are the redeemers.  However, one of the extraordinary things about the of the world’s great religions is that this equation is turned around – as most things are in religion – so that the adopted child becomes the redeemer, or the gift.  This is particularly true in Christian thinking where orthodoxy teaches a kind of double adoption: in return for God’s adoption of us by Jesus, we are ourselves adopted into the life of God.  Moreover, the adoption is invariably what I would call a ‘cross-border risk’; where one party takes on something alien, and both redeems it through hospitality and love, and in so doing is redeemed.

But to find this out, our churches and contemporary society have to be prepared to take profound risks in adoption.  No matter what our social echelon or ecclesial tradition, there is something about the giving-receiving axis in major religious traditions, and their founders viewed (even just metaphorically) as adoptees – Moses, Buddha, Mohammed, and Jesus – that invites churches and societies to reflect on the nature of their composition and hospitality.  Moreover, in transcending our normal boundaries and comfort zones, we can find love, and perhaps the trace of a more inclusive society.  Somewhere, deep in this dynamic, the church and society discovers reciprocity through hospitality: it is in giving that we receive.

Churches, I think, know this – at least at an implicit level.  Go to almost church or congregation on any Sunday, and you’ll find folk who bond together pretty well, often because of an explicit homogeneity – class, ethnicity or some other socio-cultural factor.  Sometimes the explicitness is even a matter of doctrinal bonding.  But take a closer look, and what do you find?

Invariably also sees strangers in the midst of such bodies.  Those who know they belong, somehow, but simply don’t correspond to the homogeneity of the group; and there are those who simply don’t fit in – anywhere. Those same people are often cherished (and at the very least tolerated) by that same congregation and church, and also bring that body gifts; and also point to a strange diversity that is beyond ordinary comprehension.  Here we find the implicit spirit of adoption at work.

So to some extent, it is a pity that the term ‘inclusive’ today has become so bound up with a slightly tribal and ‘liberal’ identity.  But perhaps this should not surprise us.  For the word ‘include’ began its life with a fairly insular definition.  Drawing from the Latin word includere, it means to ‘to shut in, enclose or imprison’ – just as ‘exclude’ meant to ‘shut out’.  But Jesus is not for either option.  The defining character of the Kingdom of God Jesus inaugurated draws from a rather richer word: incorporate.  That is to say, to put something into the body or substance of something else; from the Latin incorporare, it means to ‘unite into one body’.

The Kingdom of God, like the church, was to be one of hybridity.  And this is a social vision, not just an ecclesial template.  The lesson Jesus learnt in his childhood, and embodied in adulthood, is this.  God brings us all together.  He’s all done with working through a single tribe or race.  The church that begins at Pentecost has been dress-rehearsed in Jesus’ ministry: it will be multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-racial.  It will be multiple.  We, though being many, are one body.

Christians, it is often said, believe in unity, but not uniformity.  It is the spirit of adoption that underpins this dynamic.  The eventual and explicit surfacing of diversity is caused by the implicit spirit of adoption.  Christians can’t help it. It is hard-wired into Christian nature, and mandated in Christian nurture. Welcomed by God as strangers, and adopted as children, churches and congregations have been communities for embodying this practice ever since.  The adopted become adopters. Because in God’s eyes, we are all adoptees – the people God chose to take to heart, and to make a home with, and to spend eternity in the many-roomed mansion of God.

This is one of those deep, inchoate value-laden dynamics that meant the Church could never be a sect or a cult from the outset. It was always bound to be, deeply, a foundation for society: the open, adopting oikos is a vision of how to live together, not just how to be church.

That is why the churches, at their best, function like adoption and foster homes.  They welcome the unwelcome; they love the unloved; they embrace the excluded.  The Church was not meant to be a cult or a club for members, any more than the Christian vision for ‘family’ was ever meant to be ‘nuclear’. It wasn’t.

The early church took in widows and orphans. The early church was extensive and open in character.  It embraced slave and free, Jew and Gentile.  It will have embraced married and unmarried, and young and old, citizen and alien.  If the Church wants to recover a vision for mission and evangelism, and plead for the restoration of moral foundations in contemporary society, then appealing to the sanctity of the ‘nuclear family’ is not the way forward.

Instead, the way forward is to recognise that by receiving, welcoming and incorporating the alien and the stranger into our households, it is as though we are receiving Christ. The act of reception and incorporation blesses the receiving-host as much as the recipient-guest. The lesson for the churches today could hardly be clearer: “it is in giving that we receive”.

Yes, this is pseudepigrapha, I know.  For the phrase is not to be found in the Scriptures at all, but was rather uttered by St. Francis of Assisi over a millennium later.  This was Francis’ own interpretation of Jesus’ proclamation for the radically inclusive-incorporative Kingdom of God.  It is by opening our hearts and doors to others, that we not only bless them, but are in turn, blessed by them. And then we are blessed again by God for acting in the way that Jesus both teaches and embodies: loving, welcoming and inclusive to all.

About the Author

Martyn PercyThe Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy (BA, MA, M.Ed, PhD) is the 45th Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. Educated at the universities of Bristol, Durham, London and Sheffield, Prior to this Martyn was Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, Oxford (2004-2014) and has served as Canon Theologian at Sheffield Cathedral, and is a Canon Emeritus of Salisbury Cathedral.

Martyn is a member of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Oxford, and also tutors in the Social Sciences Division and the Said Business School. He is Professor of Theological Education at King’s College London, a Professorial Research Fellow at Heythrop College (University of London) and Visiting Professor at the Centre for the Study of Values, University of Winchester, and for the Centre of Theologically-Engaged Anthropology, University of Georgia.

Posted in Does the Bible Really Say, Guest Contributors, Human Sexuality, Martyn Percy | 2 Comments

Does the Bible Really Say….that a Family Needs a “Mummy and a Daddy”?

by the Revd Dr Hayley Matthews, Director of Lay Training, Diocese of Leeds

Does the Bible - Hayley

We have a lot to thank the late Victorians for. Education for all, an end to Key Stage One chimney sweeps, women in paid work as well as a proliferation of barn-like churches that were never full, and the image of what is was to be a family granted us by a Queen who adored her King and produced enough heirs and Graces to fill Osbourne House twice over.

This ideal was compounded in the post-war 1950s era of baby boomers born to illusory Happy Days families (where protagonist Richie and his sister, Joanie, live in a perfect teenage idyll with gingham-frocked, pie-bakin’ Mrs ‘C’ and her husband, Mr Cunningham, a card-carrying lodge-member and hard-working, self-made man). Still we wrestle with this idealised – and some have conflated this with the word ‘biblical’ – image of what a ‘real’ family is.

I’d like to look at the word ‘family’ as if it were an oil painting of the Cunninghams and begin gently peeling away the layers of oil, and age and dust, and any over-painting to see if we can’t get back to the original image.

What does a biblical family really look like?

Our first difficulty is that in neither Hebrew nor Greek is there a word that translates as ‘family’. Instead the Old and New Testaments contain writings centered around the word bayit (Hebrew) / oikos (Greek) meaning household.

An ancient Hebrew household would have looked something like this: a husband and at least one wife, with both sets of parents/in-laws and the couple’s children.  The husband’s siblings would also have lived in the same household, each of the brothers with their respective wives and in-laws and their children. Unmarried sisters would also have remained a part of this household. Any number of wives and concubines might have been added to this household at the man’s behest, and their children and their children’s children, too, would have formed a part of what we might consider to be a small village in East Lancashire.

Many would have been extensively related by blood and marriage: aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins twice removed and great, great, great Grandmas. Now if that seems like an awful lot of washing up for one family, do not be alarmed! The household included a wider range of less familial but no less permanent relationships such as servants and slaves who likely also had a lifelong affiliation to the families into which they had very likely been born.  This complex nexus centering around one man’s sexual, biological and business relationships was extensive, reaching far beyond our contemporary understanding of family.

This image stands in stark contrast to the Cunningham’s, living the American Dream of two binary gendered parents delivering two binary gendered children and is so far removed from the breadth and colour of a household containing upwards of 70 people (Genesis 46:5-27) as to be incomparable.

The very idea that life, love, relationships and even our worship of God was individualistic and predicated upon one primary romantic relationship with another adult would have been inconceivable to a people for whom ‘tribe’ meant everything. Joshua reminds us of this when he declares, ‘As for me and my house we will serve the Lord’ (Joshua 24:15).

He does not declare faith in a personal and individualist manner despite his obvious personal commitment and investment to following YWHW, but on behalf of his entire household. We need to be very clear that when we use the phrase ‘biblical family’ we are simply not comparing like for like and it would be dishonest to suggest otherwise.

This is not to say that biological family wasn’t important to the Israelites – God’s promise to Abraham is that his descendants would number the stars in the sky. Yet the Israelites’ history reveals God flouting conventional family ties in unexpected ways through His grace.   God ignores the blood-line convention of hereditary blessing on the firstborn son in favour of Isaac (Genesis 21:9-13), Jacob (Genesis 25:23; 27:1-19) and Judah (Genesis 49:3-4, 8-12) not to mention Joseph (yes the one with the coat) and David, selected to be King over and above a long line of strapping older brothers who would have been peeved to say the least.  God also passes His blessing through non blood-line outcasts such as Ruth the Moabite, Rahab a Canaanite prostitute and Mary –  the young, unmarried Israelite girl, now hailed as Mother of God.

God does not seem to be concerned with gender, birth order or even social/religious standing.  In the New Testament – post resurrection – God continues to disrupt our ideas of family and how God’s blessing can be received through bloodlines.

Although biological family still underpins the basis of a family unit, the concept of ‘family’ is still the household.   When Jesus is alerted that His mother and brothers are outside looking for him, Jesus’ words ‘whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’ (Matthew 12:50) sounds extraordinarily harsh unless we exchange our concept of the nuclear (or even extended) family for household. Then we hear Jesus saying ‘all these are welcome in and belong to the Household of God (just as much as my own Mum and brothers)’ as opposed to our Westernised back-reading which understands these words as ‘My followers are my real family taking precedence over my biological family whom I’ve left outside’.

I wonder if we might rethink our linear, dualistic thinking where good replaces evil and true disciples replace blood relatives. For God’s love and grace have always and ever will be expansive. Jesus drops into His incarnation like a stone in the sea of humanity from whom ripples forever roll out and widen, continually pushing back the boundaries to include concentric circles of outcasts as century after century one reactive human boundary after another is overcome welcomed into God’s household as equals.  For ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise”’(Galatians 3:28-29).

Jesus’ teaches us to pray to ‘Our Father’ which seems rather domesticated now given its familiarity, but was akin to being advised to no longer address Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II, Supreme Governor of the Church, as ‘Her Majesty’, but to call her ‘Our Mother’ or as my Dad would have talked about his mother, ‘our Mam’. Hard to conceive, isn’t it?

St Paul goes further, inviting us to relate to God as ‘Papa’  (‘Abba’ in Aramaic), ‘For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15). My adopted children call me ‘Mama’ but when my son or daughter are proudly talking of me I overhear them making the especial point ‘our/my Mummy said…’ so I can relate to the profound import of those nuances because for some time they used the word, ‘Mama’ to address me, but we all knew I wasn’t yet their Mum. The relationship has not be born out of biology, but familiarity and love.

Equally, being adopted in the Household of God moves far beyond familial and/or legal ties. “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty” (2 Corinthians 6:18) Indeed, the scriptures declare, ‘A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families’ (Psalm 68:5-6a) and those families are not nuclear ones, neither are they necessarily binary or blood related.

It is notable, given the nuclear-family-olatry that has pervaded the last century of the Church’s history that three key turning points in Israel’s salvific history have relied entirely upon non-biological family structures.  Of the Old Testament we read, ‘when he (Moses) was abandoned, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son (Acts 7:21). Moses goes on to be a prototype of the liberator of God’s people. Next, the little-known Queen, Esther, saves the people of God when they are due to become the victims of a state-sanctioned genocide; ‘when the turn came for Esther daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai, who had adopted her as his own daughter, to go in to the king’ (Esther 2:15)… she, too, is an adopted child. There is no need to recount Jesus’ gestation to an unmarried Mum from Nowheres-ville with a betrothal hanging in the balance.

Three key moments in the history of God’s own household and every last one rests upon an individual who does not flourish in their family of origin but through both trial and tribulation, God’s grace and gifting, is raised to their particular vocation through the love and care of an individual who brought them into their own household: Pharoah’s daughter (unmarried woman); Mordecai, (an elder Uncle with a household of his own); Joseph (taking on a pregnant fianceé and a child that is not his).

Families have forever originated from a much broader genesis that the progeny of a binary biological coupling – there is neither time nor space to work through the many and varied biblical accounts of people attempting all sorts of extra-marital relations in order to procure a child who goes on to be blessed by God, experiencing unmitigated inclusion into the divine Household. Children today, are no less desirous of being placed into loving households who, irrespective of bloodlines, provide a child/children with the love, grace, discipline, comfort and care that will enable them to flourish as children of God, equal in stature and value to a first-born son – He being Jesus Christ, our Lord.

There is biblical precedent for those households to take many forms; single parents, adoption, surrogacy, foster-care, blended and wide-ranging extended families, male, female or a mixture of the two.  Even developmental child psychology agrees that what children need are orientation, order, exploration, communication, movement, manipulation of objects, repetition, precision, imagination, facing and constructively responding to error. None of these things are gender specific. Most of these things require more than two people; ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is so much more than a truism.

Beginning with God, Creator of all, who called humankind into being and relationship with the Divine and one another, embodied by Adam, Eve and the call for them to multiply – to diversify as only DNA can – into the multifarious range of beings, continually calling into the myriad facets of God seen and as yet unseen.

Does the gender of a parent matter?

How can it when so often one dies and one does not. One stays the course, and one does not. When two desire but two cannot, but three can and one might adopt.  Biblical families have never been nuclear, and those that are are not the norm, they are an ideal, like Mr and Mrs Cunningham: perfectamundo.

Our call, into our own and God’s households are far beyond all-too-brief biological couplings but based instead upon grace, forgiveness, fidelity, steadfastness, gentleness, kindness, self-control, selflessness, a sense of the ridiculous if not of humour and love beyond measure in an ever-growing ripple of relationships that ever broadens into the eternal household from which and to which we are called. That’s what makes a family; correctamundo!

About the Author

Hayley Matthews

Revd Dr Hayley Matthews trained for ordination at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. Her PhD – No Faith in Equality and Diversity – was supervised by Lancaster University Management School, begun during her curacy at Lancaster Priory. Since then she has written and broadcast on a wide range of issues around gender and sexuality including a Temple Tract – Grace and Power: Sexuality and Gender in the Church of England. Hayley has been a regular broadcaster with the BBC on regional and national religious programmes, Chaplain to MediaCityUK, Salford and Manchester Universities, the Army and Rector of Holy Innocents in Fallowfield. Hayley is currently Director of Lay Training for the Anglican Diocese of Leeds, a Trustee of the William Temple Foundation and sits on the Foundation Committee of York St John University and writes as a guest blogger for ViaMedia.News and the William Temple Foundation.





Posted in Does the Bible Really Say, Hayley Matthews, Human Sexuality | 1 Comment

Does the Bible Really Say…that St Paul ‘Hates Gays’?

by the Revd Marcus Green, Rector of Steeple Aston, author of ‘The Possibility of Difference‘ and member of the Living in Love and Faith Project.

Marcus Green

I often tell a story about having tea with a friend of mine who is a bishop, a rather outspoken bishop. As we were sharing news he asked me if I was doing any writing and I started to explain stuff I was working through on Romans 1. I was excited about it (this was a few years ago) because I felt it seriously questioned the accepted narrative about St Paul’s attitude to gay people without letting go of anything St Paul wrote.

“Hmm,” replied my friend, with the kind of dismissive air that would make any self-respecting evangelical spit their tea out, “well I just think he’s wrong.”

LGBT people in the Church have been so pummelled with verses from St Paul over the years that it’s hardly surprising many line up behind my friend. But when that happens, we sell ourselves short and believe fake news, not Good News. St Paul doesn’t ‘hate gays’. Short of Jesus, he’s our best friend in the whole of the Scriptures.

To see how this can be, let’s look at Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 and see how the texts used to belittle us actually do no such thing.

And then let’s broaden our vision and see something of St Paul’s wider understanding – which soon shows us that people who want to use any bit of the Bible to exclude the LGBT community can only do so if they rip out of their Bibles most everything St Paul ever wrote.

Romans 1.18-32

I’ve seen various conservative interpretations of this text over the years. And I’ve grown to  admire many traditionalist interpreters of the Bible – for a viewpoint which sells itself as being ‘what we have always believed’, these guys are remarkably adept at re-inventing themselves.

One of my favourite conservative takes on Romans 1 focuses on the three times that St Paul says: “God gave them over…” – to sexual impurity (v24), to shameful lusts (v26), to a depraved mind (v.28).  Three times God stresses the ‘evils’ of the gay lifestyle.

Of course, this is nonsense.

For two reasons. First, v.24 and v.28 have nothing to do with being gay – they apply to all sorts of folk. St Paul isn’t being picky. Two thirds of this clobber text are about straight people from the get go.

All straight people?

Well – that’s the second thing. Verses 22-23 and v25 make it very clear what St Paul’s actual focus is. He’s not writing about sex. He’s writing about sin.

Sin in St Paul (and indeed in the whole Bible) is primarily about idolatry not immorality. That is to say – it is about how people worship something or someone other than God, rather than how we misbehave. It is about the broken relationship between creation and Creator. The degrading of the body, the shameful lusts, the depraved minds are all evidence of the brokenness.

All straight people?

St Paul is writing about folk who live in brokenness. He’s not writing about all relationships, and he’s not saying that every person is wicked, evil, greedy, envious, murderous, deceitful, malicious, insolent, inventing evil, faithless, loveless and merciless. He is saying that people (and this means predominantly straight people in our understanding – though Paul wouldn’t know the term) who are broken from God are set on this depraved path.

So even if verses 26 & 27, the middle verses in this passage, are about gay people, in context they are about sinful, broken, idolatrous gay people. They are not a theology helping us to think about how to respond to all LGBT folk in church – any more than verses 28-32 are an understanding of all straight people in church.

We can look here and try to work out how to answer the question: “Can two Christian people of the same gender fall in love and marry?”  But St Paul isn’t saying anything about this. He is saying that spiritual brokenness can change us and damage all of us – and I think that’s hard to argue.

I hope no-one wants to hide from that. But let’s also allow for a little humility. We need to remember not to presume that what we see in someone else is what might be our brokenness. It could just be someone else’s real life.


Because of Romans 2.

“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgement on someone else…because you do the same things.” St Paul points out we are all frail, and we all depend on God’s kindness. Why point at what we perceive to be someone else’s weakness? Don’t we ourselves depend on the riches of grace? Perhaps we might seek to understand rather than condemn?

A quick footnote, and then let’s move on.

People get very heated over the words ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ (better – ‘against nature’) in Romans 1.26-27. “There you go – St Paul says being gay is unnatural.”

I was always taught to let the Bible interpret the Bible. And St Paul is a great help in this, because he uses the same words later in Romans.

In Romans 11.24 we again have ‘natural’ and ‘contrary to nature’ being used. It’s the same language. I know that in Romans 1 some people want to see ‘natural’ as a pure good and ‘against nature’ as an unparalleled bad – but in Romans 11, it is we Gentile Christians who are described by St Paul as being grafted into a cultivated olive tree ‘against nature’, a process which most of us rather depend on, and look at as being a positive thing.

It seems that God can act ‘against nature’ and in doing so produce something positive. ‘Nature’ in St Paul is not the final arbiter of good and evil. We do not worship nature – the creation; that’s rather the point of Romans 1! We worship the Creator of nature, who made the creation to be a blessing for us.

1 Corinthians 6.9-11

“Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral no idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed…”

Thus the NIV. At least Romans 1 understood that LGBT had L as well as G, (even if they were idolaters, they were men and women) but here it’s all about the G. Women do often seem to disappear in the Bible text, and this is certainly one of those places. Apologies. Though, actually, I think truth also disappears fairly regularly in our sexuality debates and as we discuss these texts.

“Men who have sex with men” is a round up of two Greek words (malakoi and arsenokoitai) and – unfortunately – a wider Biblical search doesn’t help. St Paul is offering us terms that don’t come elsewhere. The NRSV translation offers ‘male prostitutes and sodomites’. The Authorised Version rendered this as ‘nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind’.

I’m not a fan of discussions on sexuality that take their arguments from the wider play of classical literature. St Paul, we are told, was a first century Jew and would therefore have had a strong dislike of same sex activity. Sort of, I want to reply, but a first century Jew (and a Pharisee at that) would also not have believed that the resurrection happened in the middle of history rather than at the very end, would not have allowed women to worship alongside men in the common gathering, and would not have seen Gentiles as fully equal human beings to Jews. And yet…

Malakoi is well translated by the Authorised Version as ‘effeminate’, but I think we hear the wrong connotation with that. In Roman culture (apologies – I’m using a reference that is beyond the Scriptures) an effeminate man could be one who was seeking the attention of women. Quite the reverse of our expectation. Also, the list of words doesn’t link ‘arsenokoitai’ with ‘malakoi’ – our presumptions do. If malakoi is a ‘ladies man’ it fits well with ‘adulterers’, the word before it. The effect would be – “the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, men who prey on women, men who prey on men, those who steal, those who are greedy…”

This is what some of the believers in Corinth were. Not gay – as indeed they aren’t being critiqued for being straight – but people displaying the evidences of broken relationship with God. People not loving their neighbour. People draining life from others in order to serve themselves. People who are abusing life to excess because they have not discovered Jesus’ gift of living life to the full. That’s what they were.

And then it is helpful to put these verses in context.

1 Corinthians 5 talks of problems in the fellowship to do with failures in heterosexual marriage. 1 Corinthians 7 talks of the gift of marriage in the community – and the gift of celibacy for some in that community. 1 Corinthians 6 is not a bracketed text in the middle with a theology for gay people. It’s part of this sweep, and its clear emphasis is on the sins of straight people.

To read letters from evangelical clergy quoting words taken out of this context as if LGBT people were St Paul’s acceptable reason for breaking churches reminds me that theological education is more important today than ever.

And then…

And then we need to stand back. Because St Paul didn’t fight our fight but he made sure it was already won.

These questions only exist because we have forgotten the bigger picture, they only get asked because we have mislaid the foundations of our faith. At the end of Galatians, having spent a letter condemning people who require Gentile Christians to outwardly practice Jewish ritual in order to be members of the Christian family, Paul says:

“Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.” Gal 6.15

In Ephesians this is explained further: “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two (Jew and Gentile) thus making peace…Consequently you are no longer foreigners and strangers.” Eph 2.15,19

St Paul had a huge, transformative and truly revolutionary vision of a new community – a new humanity – that broke every social and economic rule in the book. No slave or free, no male or female, no Jew or Gentile. Every believer becoming one in Christ. God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved. Children together by grace through faith.

Any attempt to make our current debates on sexuality a ‘bigger deal’ than the Early Church’s struggle with the question of the co-existence of Jewish and Gentile believers are self-involved nonsense. And St Paul answered those questions with an appeal to Christ’s creation of a new humanity and a resounding and repeated call to love our neighbour as ourselves.

The fulfilling of the Law is never in the tiny rules we fixate upon today and in a hundred years no-one will understand – it’s in following Jesus in love and fellowship and unity.

And yes, St Paul has a huge focus on sexual propriety. But for some today to think they have a hold on this which begins by making others less free, less human, less reflective of the relational love within the Godhead is again to miss the transforming gift of God’s new humanity.

Christianity ought never be mistaken for a heterosexual fertility cult – and St Paul’s call for abstinence is not aimed at gay folk but perhaps at some of the straight folk who get that emphasis wrong!

Does St Paul really hate gays? No.

He is the apostle of inclusion, who finds people that others disdain to touch and sees them for who they really are – fully equal children in the kingdom of God, disciples who change the world.

About the Author

Marcus Green sq

Marcus Green studied at Merton College, Oxford before training for ordination at Wycliffe Hall (where his tutors and lecturers included RT France, Alister McGrath and NT Wright). After two curacies in the Church in Wales he spent a year at Cambridge; his research there (on worship in Matthew’s Gospel) was later published in popular form as part of the book Salvation’s Song. After returning to parochial ministry in Wales, Marcus continued to lecture on this research at colleges from Wycliffe Hall in Oxford to Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky.

While working for the University of Leeds, Marcus wrote a long essay for the Pilling Commission; this began the process of writing which eventually produced his second book, The Possibility of Difference. Its strong biblically-based argument for inclusion was described by Bishop John Pritchard as ‘thoughtful, non-confrontational and significant’ and resulted in Marcus being asked to join the biblical working group of the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith project on Human Identity, Sexuality and Marriage.

Marcus is now Rector of three rural parishes in the Diocese of Oxford, and continues to write, blog and speak on LGBT issues and the Bible.


Posted in Does the Bible Really Say, Human Sexuality, Marcus Green | 6 Comments

Does the Bible Really Say….that Sodomites were sodomites?

by Dr Meg Warner, Biblical Scholar in Old Testament Studies and the Hebrew Bible, affiliated with both Kings College, London and the University of Exeter

Meg Warner header 2

Stories, I’ve come to learn, are very like fire: they are necessary for life, they tend to be unpredictable, and without due care they can lethal.

Genesis 19, the story of God’s destruction of Sodom, is one that has been lethal. It is one of the five or six biblical texts known as the ‘clobber texts’ (because they are really good for hitting people over the head with), and it is regularly offered as biblical evidence that God hates loving, sexual, relationships between men.

As I have already said, stories need to be treated with care if they are not to prove lethal. This story has not always received that care, and so it will be appropriate here to consider it in some detail. First, however, I’d like to make one thing crystal clear – Genesis 19 may be many things, but it is NOT evidence about God’s attitude towards loving, sexual relationships between men (or women, for that matter). It tells a story in which a group of men apparently threaten to pack-rape some other men (who are actually angels), but it has nothing to say about the kind of same-sex relationships that are currently getting the churches so het-up.

So, is the story of Sodom actually a story about sodomy? And were the Sodomites actually sodomites? What does Genesis itself say about the sin of Sodom?

The first indication of trouble in Sodom comes in Genesis 13:13, where the narrator says, ‘Now, the people of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the LORD’. The nature of this ‘wickedness’ remains unknown prior to Genesis 19, although its scale is noted in Gen 18:20: ‘How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin!’

The wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah was undoubtedly great, but Genesis nowhere explicitly identifies its particular ‘flavour’.

In the story, the men of Sodom surround Lot’s home, where Lot is sheltering two mysterious visitors to the city, and demand that Lot bring out his guests, in order that they might ‘know’ them (19:5). The Hebrew verb, ‘to know’, is yd’. It possesses a range of meanings, just as in English, that sometimes have sexual overtones and sometimes do not. Sometimes it is clearly used with a sexual sense (eg. Gen 19:8, ‘I have two daughters who have not known [yd’] a man’) and sometimes clearly not (eg. Gen 18:21, ‘I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know [yd’]).’

In modern times interpreters have generally read the word ‘know’ in Genesis 19:5 (‘Bring them out to us, so that we may know [yd’] them’) as having a sexual sense, although this is not absolutely clear. The general thrust of the resulting interpretation is that the men of Sodom want Lot to bring the visitors out of his home so that they can have sex with them. The great sin, or the wickedness, of Sodom, so the argument goes, is therefore homosexuality, which God punishes by means of the destruction of Sodom and every person in it.

Even if the verb yd’ is best understood as having a sexual meaning in the context of Gen 19:5, it does not necessarily follow that Genesis 19 should be read as a proof-text against homosexuality. As I’ve already noted, the threatened sex here is violent, non-consensual and between strangers (not all of whom are, strictly speaking, human.) However, the simmering anger and violence in the narrative do not support an idea that the men of Sodom were seeking an opportunity to seduce the visitors, but rather that they sought to exert power over them in some regard.

Nowhere else in the book of Genesis is concern expressed about sex between men, but sexual activity between humans and divine beings is a pervasive theme. In Genesis 6 the wickedness (r’) of humankind, manifesting itself in sexual congress between ‘daughters of humans’ and ‘sons of God’, so grieves God that God decides to blot out all humans and living things from the face of the earth. Interestingly, the same Hebrew root is used by Lot in Genesis 19:7, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly (r’)’ and by the narrator in Genesis 13:13, ‘Now, the people of Sodom were wicked (r’) …’. This strikingly consistent use of the language of wickedness (r’) supports an argument that, had the men of Sodom gone on to have sex with the visitors, their crime would not have been homosexuality but hubris—the pursuit of divinity by means of intercourse with divine beings.

So, if homosexuality is not the wickedness of the Sodomites, and the catalyst for the destruction of Sodom, what is? Hubris is a possible answer, or part of one, but there are others. One of the best ways to work out what Genesis 19 is all about is to see what other biblical books have to say about it. The major prophets used the names Sodom and Gomorrah as bywords for ‘inhospitality’ and ‘abuse of power’. Perhaps the clearest statement is to be found in Ezek 16:49-50:

“This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.” (See also Isa 1:10 and Jer 23:14)

Australian scholar, Mark G. Brett (currently Editor-in-Chief of the foremost international journal for biblical studies, the Journal of Biblical Literature), writes:

“If there is a common theme in these prophetic allusions to Sodom, it would be oppression of the weak. The texts in Isaiah and Ezekiel are concerned with matters of justice, while Jeremiah 23:14 condemns the abuse of prophetic power … the common thread is the perception of the Sodomites as people who abused power”.[1]

There is no text in the Old Testament, other than Genesis 19 itself, in which the populace of Sodom is connected with a reputation for homosexuality or any other kind of sexual behaviour. This tends to suggest that, at least until a century or two before Christ, there was no ‘popular Israelite conception’ of Sodom as a city of sodomites.

One passage in the New Testament associates the city of Sodom (as well as Gomorrah and the cities surrounding them) with unconventional sexual practices. The author of the brief Letter of Jude, however, appears to have been of the view that the citizens of Sodom and its neighbours were guilty of sexual activity with divine beings, rather than with same-gender partners:

Now I desire to remind you, though you are fully informed, that the Lord, who once for all saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterwards destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who kept their own position, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgement of the Great Day. Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and went after other flesh, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. (Translation from NRSV, incorporating the NRSV’s own critical note – indicated with italics – from the Greek text.)

The Greek phrase that the NRSV translates as ‘unnatural lust’ is heteras sarkos.[2] The most literal translation of this phrase is ‘other flesh’, and the NRSV notes this in a footnote. Jude, then, is concerned primarily about sex between humans and the divine, just like Genesis 6 and 19.

If Sodom’s crime was not popularly understood, at least until a century or two prior to the birth of Christ, to be homosexual sex, then when did the identification of the Sodomites as sodomites first arise?

Scholars don’t agree on the first instances of extra-biblical interpretation of Sodom’s sin as homosexuality, or the influence of such early readings. Some suggest that Genesis 19 was first associated with homosexuality in the first century after Christ, and that this can be seen in the writings of Philo and some of the apocryphal writings. Others point to the work of the church fathers, noting that Origen did not link Sodom with homosexuality at all, while Augustine and John Chrysostom did so only once each, instead placing emphasis on the theme of hospitality, suggesting that the association between Genesis 19 and homosexuality had not become widespread prior to the fifth century at least.

The earliest interpreters of Genesis 19, then, did not regard it as self-evident that the crime of the men of the city of Sodom, punished by the divine destruction of the city, was homosexuality.

Interpreters of Genesis 19 today are increasingly likely to look past their gut-reactions to words such as ‘Sodom’ and ‘Sodomite’ and to scenarios of same-sex violence, and to focus instead on the literary and socio-political contexts of the text. They identify both Genesis 18 (Abraham’s welcome of three strangers at Mamre) and 19 as stories about hospitality that reflect the hospitality codes of their time, recognising Genesis 18 as a story of hospitality to strangers in a non-urban context and Genesis 19 as a story about the particular challenges and tensions of offering hospitality in an urban setting. These challenges and tensions arise as a consequence of the risks inherent in inviting strangers to remain within city walls overnight. Issuing such invitations was the privilege of a city’s male citizens. The conflict in Genesis 19 arises from the fact that Lot assumes this privilege for himself, as can be seen clearly in verse 9, in which the angry citizens of Sodom say, ‘This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge!’

The men of Sodom aren’t just feeling lustful on a slow Friday night. They are angry (and, to some extent, justifiably so) with Johnny-come-lately Lot for placing them and their women and children in danger by inviting strangers to stay within the walls overnight. They want to ‘know’ (yd’) who the visitors are, so that they can assess the level of threat. Lot, who doesn’t ‘get’ all of this any more than some modern commentators (!), misunderstands the men’s demands as sexual but is unwilling to allow strangers under his roof to be mistreated, and offers his virgin daughters in their place – thus responding to the ‘comically grotesque’ in-hospitality of the Sodomites with comically grotesque hospitality, unimaginable to today’s readers in the West, but not unknown still in some parts of the world, and iconic in Lot’s own context.

Genesis 19 is a story that, as a result of a lack of care on the part of interpreters over centuries, who have found it easier (or more convenient) to make assumptions based on associations with the word ‘sodomite’ than to explore the text’s own context, has proven lethal for LGBTI+ Christians in ours.

How terribly ironic that the real ‘wickedness’ in the story – the things that God finds abominable – should be not homosexuality at all, but ‘in-hospitality’ and ‘abuse of power’.

About the Author

Meg Warner

Dr Meg Warner is a Biblical Scholar specialising in the Old Testament and the Hebrew Bible, and is affiliated with both King’s College London and the University of Exeter. She is an LLM in the Diocese of London who she represents as an elected lay member on General Synod.  She travels extensively and speaks at conferences, festivals and church events both at home and abroad. Her publications include Abraham: A journey through Lent (SPCK: 2015) and Re-Imagining Abraham: A Re-Assessment of the Influence of Deuteronomisim in Genesis (Brill, 2018).

For a full list of her publications and blogs please visit her website.

Some Further Reading

Bolan, Thomas M. ‘The Role of Exchange in Ancient Mediterranean Religion and its Implications for Reading Genesis 18-19’ JSOT 29 (2004): 37–56.

Brett, Mark G. Genesis: Procreation and the Politics of Identity. London: Routledge, 2000.

Noort, Ed and Tigchelaar, Eibert (eds.) Sodom’s Sin: Genesis 18-19 and its Interpretations. Leiden: Brill, 2004.

Warner, Meg. Abraham: A journey through Lent. London: SPCK, 2015.


[1] Mark G. Brett, Genesis: Procreation and the Politics of Identity (London: Routledge, 2000), 68.

[2] For what it is worth, both the noun and the adjective are feminine.

Posted in Does the Bible Really Say, Human Sexuality, Meg Warner | 12 Comments