Does the Bible Really…Give Us a Clear Definition of Marriage?

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

Martyn Percy

‘We all know that love is the answer’, opined Woody Allen, ‘but while you’re waiting for the answer, sex raises some pretty good questions’ (Interview, New York Times, December 1, 1975).  Questions, indeed.  And before we even begin to answer that question – “does the bible really give us a clear definition of marriage?” – we might want to ask this: “what kind of book is the bible, and how should we read it?”.  The answer to that question will help us navigate the issue of “biblical marriage”.  So, let us begin at the beginning, and with some words from Dan Brown’s bestselling 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code:

Teabing smiled.  ‘Everything you need to know about the Bible can be summed up by the great Canon Dr. Martyn Percy.’  Teabing cleared his throat and declared, ‘the Bible did not arrive by fax from heaven…the Bible is a product of man, my dear.  Not of God.  The Bible did not fall magically from the clouds.  Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times, and it has evolved through countless translations and revisions.  History has never had a definitive version of the book…More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only [four] were chosen for inclusion…The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great…’.  [2003: Chapter 55]

Like so much else in Dan Brown’s novel, this is not quite right.  But speaking as the person quoted above, I’ll try and clarify my views a little.  It is true that ‘the Bible is not a fax from heaven’ is a quote correctly attributed to me, although to the best of my knowledge, I have only ever said this in lectures, radio, TV and a newspaper interviews – and always in connection with how to understand fundamentalism.  Furthermore, behind the slick sound-bite, there is a fairly sophisticated theological point.  So let me explain.

Views about the authority of Scripture cannot be directly resourced from the Bible itself.  The bible has no self-conscious identity.  As a collation of books and writings, it came together over a long period of time.  Indeed, the word ‘bible’ comes from the Greek biblos, simply meaning ‘books’.  Equally, the word ‘canon’ (here used in relation to Scripture, not as an ecclesiastical title) simply means ‘rule’.

So the Scriptures are, literally, ‘authorised books’.  The authorisation of the compilation took place sometime after the books were written.  When Paul wrote ‘all Scripture is inspired by God’ (2. Tim 3.16) in a letter to his friend, Timothy, he could hardly have had his own letter in mind at the time.  The conferral of canonical status on his letter came quite a bit later – and some would say much later.

Views on the authority of the bible cannot be solely resourced from the bible.  The bible needs to be held and understood in a particular way, independent of its content, in order to have any authority.  For some (I’m thinking here of fundamentalists), the power of God must be mediated through clear and pure identifiable channels or agents.  This guarantees the quality of that power: it is unquestionable and unambiguous.

But for others – usually of a more mainstream, broad persuasion – God acts and speaks through channels and agents that are fully themselves.  So God works through culture, peoples and history, not over and against them.  The almighty power of God is only ever known on earth partially (not absolutely); it can only be encountered ‘through a glass darkly’, and not ‘face to face’. Yet.

So although the power of God may be pure and absolute at source, God always chooses to mediate that power through less than perfect agents (such as language, people, times and places).  And this is because God’s primary interest is in disclosing love in order to draw us into relationships, and not in unequivocal demonstrations of power, which would leave no room for a genuinely free response, and merely obedience in the face of oppression.  So we have the burning bush for Moses – but he covers his face.  And although Jesus is the light of the world, ‘the darkness comprehends it not’, according to John.  What is revealed is still ‘hidden’ to those who are blind.

So, some Christians believe that Scripture has come from heaven to earth, in an unimpaired, totally unambiguous form – like a ‘fax’.  Such views are fundamentalistic: the bible is the pure word of God – every letter and syllable is ‘God breathed’.  So there is no room for questions; knowledge replaces faith.  It is utterly authoritative: to question the bible is tantamount to questioning God.  So the bible here is more like an instruction manual than a mystery to be unpacked.  It teaches plainly, and woe to those who dissent.

But to those who believe that Scripture is a more complex body of writings, the authority of Scripture lies in the total witness of its inspiration.  Thus, the bible does indeed contain many things that God may want to say to humanity (and they are to be heeded and followed).  But it also contains opinions about God (even one or two moans and complaints – see the Psalms); it contains allegory, parables, humour, histories and debates.  The nature of the bible invites us to contemplate the very many ways in which God speaks to us.  The bible is not one message spoken by one voice.  It is, rather, symphonic in character – a restless and inspiring chorus of testaments, whose authority rests upon its very plurality.  The Scriptures are like sausages – delicious, nourishing and tasty – but you really don’t want to see how they are made.

Yes, the bible is revered Holy Scripture. But blind obedience to all of Scripture is not practised by any group of Christians known to me, or who have ever lived.  Few Christians abstain from eating black pudding on scriptural grounds (Acts 15:28-29).  Few Christians follow the Levitical texts on dress codes to the letter, if at all.  I do know of Christians who object to clapping in worship (it is of the ‘old covenant’; i.e., not mentioned in the New Testament).  I know of other Christians who object to most kinds of dancing on the same ticket. Then there is slavery. Whilst not exactly praised to the hilt in Scripture, it is condoned, and never censured – a fact not lost on the Confederate Christians who fought in the American Civil War.

Indeed, the recent HBO television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) gives us a rich and interesting insight into what ‘biblical marriages’ cab look like.  In Atwood’s fictional Republic of Gilead, set in some future dystopia, the adult female population is divided between handmaids, Martha’s and wives.  The function of the handmaids was to bear children to the master of the house. Martha’s are there to serve. Wives are to submit.  This is a ‘biblical marriage’ pattern, of sorts.

Abraham thought he and Sarah could not have children, and so they turned to Hagar, their Egyptian handmaid (Genesis 16).  Is this a biblical pattern of marriage? It is to such questions that the author Rachel Held Evans turned her mind some years ago in her bestselling and also rather controversial 2012 book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. 

Evans, intrigued by the traditionalist resurgence that had led many of her friends to abandon their careers to assume traditional gender roles in the home, Evans decided to try it for herself, adopting all of the bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible – embarking on a radical life experiment, namely living a year of biblical womanhood.  She grew her hair, adopted a “gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4), covered her head, abstained from gossip, rose every day before dawn, made sure she “praised her husband at the city gates”(!), remained silent in church (of course), and also slept outside the family home during menstruation.

I have a hunch that the phrase ‘biblical marriage’ is similar to ‘nuclear family’.  It sounds biblical enough.  Yet neither of these phrases is found in the bible.  Perhaps that is why in 2014, my wife (Emma) and I responded with such alacrity to an invitation to write an introduction for the NRSV Wedding Gift Bible.  It was a joy to write together, but in sending off the final text, I included a note to the publisher. I said that in the spirit of the NRSV translation, we had avoided using gendered pronouns for God, where possible. And we had also done the same for the individuals who were getting married. So you could give this bible to any couple. Yes, any. So two women, or two men, could receive the gift of Holy Scripture to celebrate their marriage. The bible is for everyone, after all.

I hold that each marriage is unique; each partnership distinctive; no two unions are the same.  Two individuals make solemn vows of commitment to each other.  It is the beginning of a journey in which each commits to being the faithful travelling companion of the other. God promises never to leave us; to accompany us and abide with us. Journeying is central.  From Abraham in Genesis through to Paul in the New Testament, we read of men and women who have journeyed – trusting that God is their unfailing travelling companion.

The Scriptures give us stories of better times in which blessings abound and individuals and communities know what it means to be loved and cherished by God. But they don’t spare us the hard roads either. The Scriptures also give us variety: pleasant places and rocky terrain; gentle rises and steep slopes. The goal of marriage is not merely to live life ‘happily ever after’.  But that rather, together, we commit to enjoying each other in the ups and downs that life brings – in faithfulness and love.

The bible, as the word of God, and as a single book, is a collection of Scriptures that speak to us in many different ways about God, love and life.  It is not one voice, but many; yet though many, one.  And that one message is this: that God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them (1 John 4: 16).  So the bible itself is a covenant sign.  It is a marriage – a union of Scriptures – that can only be understood in the totality of its witness. And that is partly why I am so committed to same-sex marriages. I see no reason why such unions cannot reflect the love of God, and bear testimony to God’s grace, truth and power.

I am always wary of groups or individuals who claim to be ‘biblical’, because in my experience, this kind of exclusive, tribal claim is exactly the kind of thing the bible doesn’t offer us.  In fundamentalist worlds, it is never the bible that rules; it is always the interpreter.  So that’s why we read Scriptures together – because this is a shared journey of adventure and discovery in which the simple can confound the wise, and the foolish outwit the clever.

I know it is not easy for some Christians to see God at work in a same-sex marriage, and may never be able to.  But these days a growing number can and do: they see all marriages as something to celebrate. They see that Scripture does not lay down one pattern of marriage, like an instruction manual.  Rather, marriage, like Scripture, is a mystery to be unpacked over time.  In ongoing contemplation and appreciation, it can be a real sign of God’s love and grace.

So Scripture – like art, music poetry, symbols and signs – invites us to sit awhile and contemplate how God is revealed.  The burning bush of Moses has no single meaning, and never could. The bible offers several patterns of marriage.  A loving marriage is a sacramental token of love, and an invitation to pause and attend, stepping through the gate of mystery that God gives to us.

On the question of same-sex marriage, we may need reminding of one thing. God did not send us a fax.  Instead, God chose to speak through Jesus – the body language of God – to remind us that God is ultimate love, and that those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. Sex raises some interesting questions, for sure. But so far as God is concerned, love is always the answer.

About the Author

Martyn Percy

The 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.

Advertisements
Posted in Does the Bible Really Say, Guest Contributors, Human Sexuality, Martyn Percy | 22 Comments

Does the Bible Really Say…that Sex Outside of Marriage is Wrong?

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

Does the Bible really say that sex outside marriage is wrong?

This question is a highly practical one for all Christians, but it has particular ramifications for different groups of people. If you are not heterosexual, for example, you probably find yourself in a double-bind. On one hand, the churches teach that the Bible says you must not have sex outside marriage. On the other, it won’t marry you (to your same-sex partner). Celibacy, it seems, is your only option.

If you are heterosexual and unmarried, celibacy will be your lot also, but at least you have the option of marriage.

If you are married, then you may not have sex with anybody other than your spouse.

If you are divorced, the church has traditionally taught that you may not remarry, and therefore that you are to be celibate.

This biblical teaching impacts heavily on the lives of Christians today, in a world that promotes values of a very different nature. Are the churches right?

In one respect, at least, the answer is easy. The Ten Commandments provide that a person must not commit adultery (Exod 20:14; Deut 5:18). It can be said with some authority, then, that a Christian should not have sex with a person who is married to somebody else (no matter their sex or gender), or with anybody other than their own spouse.

Unfortunately, the Bible does not often clarify God’s instructions quite so helpfully(!) and so to answer the rest of the question it will be necessary to set out, briefly, a few essential principles of biblical reading and interpretation. They are essential because, if ignored, our interpretation is only too likely to do violence to the meaning of the biblical text and to the people whose autonomy and actions we seek to restrict by it.

1.  The phrase ‘the Bible says’ is nonsensical.

There is no one thing called ‘the Bible’. In Greek the noun ‘bible’ (ta biblia) is plural (ie. ‘the Scriptures’). ‘The Bible’, then, is not a book but a library. The books that make up the library typically say many and varied things about any given subject. These are not always consistent and can even be in direct conflict. This conflict may represent a variety of biblical ‘views’ and may reflect development of views over time, even within a single book.

2.  The Bible is not an ethical guide-book.

The biblical books represent many different genres and while some offer instruction for how to live, others comprise stories, letters, lists, poetry, proverbs etc., that may offer reliable ethical guidance, but equally may not. Stories, for example, can be opaque or suggest a multiplicity of meanings – as Jesus’ use of parables (and his disciples’ regular failure to understand them) demonstrates admirably.

3.  Mind the Gap

The Scriptures are the products of their own contexts. Those contexts are typically very different from our own, so that it is not practicable or biblically faithful just to pick up a biblical idea and insert it into our own context. This point was made forcefully in Jonathan Tallon’s post in this series (17 May). As a further example, both Exodus and Deuteronomy make provision for the family of a single woman who is sexually assaulted to be married off to her assailant. At the time of writing these provisions functioned pastorally. Today, in the West at least, they would be considered abusive.

4.  Cultural Borrowing

Not everything that is said in the Bible was intended by its author to indicate how God would have us live (whether during biblical times or today). Much biblical detail reflects the prevailing culture of the time and place of writing. For example, nowhere in the Bible will you find a definition of ‘marriage’. The biblical authors used, or ‘borrowed’, the concept of marriage as they knew it as a starting point for their writing about marriage. Sure, they proposed special marital rules that were to apply exclusively to Israelites and in these we can see reflected a sense of God’s particular intentions. However, the general models of marriage reflected in biblical books are not presented as being stipulated by God, but rather are ‘borrowed’, or assumed, from the surrounding cultures – Hebrew, Greek and Roman.

The combined effect of these four principles (there are others, but these will do for our purposes) is that it is not good enough (or safe enough) to take a single biblical verse, passage or story, and to maintain that it should be understood as authoritative for the conduct of our lives today. That does not mean that we cannot, or should not, attempt to take the Scriptures as a guide for living – we certainly should do so – but our approach needs to be comprehensive, critical and cautious if we are to avoid doing violence to the text and to one another.

The Bible and Sex Outside Marriage

Given the above, it may not be surprising that the Bible doesn’t offer us a single, clear guide to God’s views about extra-marital sex. Two things could be said in general. The first is that there is relatively little about extra-marital sex in biblical texts, when compared with topics relating to money and violence, for example. The gospels suggest that Jesus said very little on the subject (see Matt 5:27-32; Luke 16:18).

The second general observation is that the overwhelming impression of the various biblical references and allusions to sex outside marriage is negative. Extra-marital sex tends to be viewed in biblical texts as ‘A Very Bad Thing’. One thinks, for example, of the professed view of Paul ‘that it is better to be married than to burn’ (1 Cor 7:9).

In order to know whether, or how, the Bible’s references and allusions to extra marital sex ought to shape our conduct today, however, we need to look more closely.

The foundation for biblical views on this subject is found in Deuteronomy 22’s collection of law (or ‘instruction’) about sexual conduct outside marriage, which sets out a series of examples of proscribed behaviour. The collection provides, variously, that a single woman, living in the home of her father, should not have sex (so that she can present herself to her husband as a virgin – Deut 22:13-21), an engaged woman should not engage in consensual sex (Deut 22:23-29), and a married woman who has sex with someone other than her husband should die (Deut 22:22). Meanwhile, a man who has forced sex with a single woman will be required to pay a fee to her father, marry the girl and never divorce her (Deut 22:28-29), a man who has sex with an engaged woman should be put to death (Deut 22:23-27), and a man who has sex with another man’s wife should be put to death (Deut 22:22).

At one level Deuteronomy 22 could be viewed as a code that forbids sex outside of marriage. However, I wonder whether you noticed something about the way these provisions are cast? Each one is predicated on the marital status of the woman. No concern whatsoever is expressed about the man. He is simply ‘a man’ in each case. Why the disparity?

It has to do with cultural ideas about men and women in biblical times.

Women were, in a very real sense, regarded as the property of the men to whom they ‘belonged’ – usually their fathers or husbands. In general, a woman was valuable to the man to whom she belonged, unless she failed to marry, in which case she became a burden. Marriage was in part a financial transaction, in which a girl’s father looked to receive a ‘marriage gift’ or mohar from her suitor. A father owned not only his daughter, but also her sexuality, and virginity was considered essential to what a woman brought to her marriage. Her husband could divorce her if he did not find evidence of her virginity (Deut 22:13-21), and if her family were unable to produce evidence of it she would be stoned to death for ‘prostituting herself in her father’s house’.

This idea, of women as the property of men, is reflected in biblical provisions about incest.

Deut 22:30 provides that a man should not marry his father’s wife, thereby violating his father’s rights. Similarly, Lev 18:8 provides, ‘You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is the nakedness of your father.’ In other words, a man should not marry his father’s wife because her sexuality belongs to him. Certainly, consanguinity is an evident concern in Leviticus 18 and 20, but a sense of women as property is also undoubtedly present.

I’ve referred a couple of times already to a provision that an unengaged woman who is sexually assaulted may, or must, be married off to her attacker (Deut 22:28-29; cf. Exod 22:16-17). This allowed a family to receive the mohar, and it saved the family the burden of shame of caring for an unmarriageable, non-virgin daughter. This provision stands behind the story of the sexual assault of Dinah in Genesis 34 (where the complicating factor was that Dinah’s attacker, and would-be suitor, was foreign). In its context, the provision was designed to be pastoral. In our context it would be considered anything but!

Not all biblical stories in which characters are portrayed having sex outside marriage depict the outcomes required by these provisions, however. For example, when Judah discovers (in Genesis 38) that Tamar, the widow of his deceased sons, has become pregnant, his initial response is to bring her out to be stoned, but when he discovers that he himself is the father of her child he praises her righteousness. Similarly, when Ruth scandalously lies down next to Boaz’s feet (note that the same Hebrew noun serves for feet and genitals) on the threshing floor in Ruth 3, Boaz praises her for her loyalty. In Matthew’s gospel, when Joseph discovers that Mary, his betrothed, is pregnant (and not to himself) he at first proposes to dismiss her quietly, but decides finally to marry her. Matthew tells the story in order to establish Joseph’s righteousness.

Sex Outside Marriage Today

It is one thing to assess a generalised biblical approach to extra-marital sex, it is quite another to claim that the same approach represents God’s will for us today. With an eye to the four principles of interpretation set out above, it will be evident that that are some matters around which we should exercise caution.

We no longer, in the West, consider women to be the property of men, and while marriage may still be a family concern, it is no longer essentially a financial transaction. The principles set out in Deuteronomy 22 are no longer needed to ensure protection from shame and financial loss. Further, if we were all familiar with Deuteronomy 22, and understood the social values that it upheld, we would likely be appalled, and perhaps choose to boycott behavioral patterns based upon those social values, rather than to compel people to follow them. (See ‘Mind the Gap’ – Principle 3 above).

Further, those social values are not clearly of themselves inherently biblical. The code in Deuteronomy adopts prevalent community standards and attitudes, and makes special rules and provisions for Israelites. Today’s prevalent community standards and attitudes are vastly different. The special rules and provisions put in place for ancient Israelites may not be helpful, and may even be harmful, in our context. (See ‘Cultural Borrowing’ – Principle 4 above).

Time to Re-think

It is time for churches to re-visit their teaching and rules about sex outside marriage. This is particularly pressing in light of the double-bind for non-heterosexuals that I identified at the beginning of this essay, but it is also an issue for divorcees and other heterosexuals. Some churches would likely change their views if they were seriously to reconsider the matter, especially given the pastoral ramifications of continuing to take the traditional line.

There is a world of difference between sticking with an outlook that is prevalent in the Bible, and being faithfully biblical.

About the Author

Meg WarnerDr 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.

Further Reading

Cadwallader, Alan (ed.)          Pieces of Ease and Grace (Adelaide: ATF, 2013).

Warner, Megan                       ‘Therefore a Man Leaves his Father and his Mother and Clings to his Wife: Marriage and Intermarriage in Gen 2:24’ Journal of Biblical Literature 113 (2017): 269-289.

Wright, Nigel (ed.)                 Five Uneasy Pieces: Essays on Scripture and Sexuality (Adelaide: ATF, 2011).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Does the Bible Really Say, Human Sexuality, Meg Warner | 6 Comments

Does the Bible Really Say…Anything at All about Homosexuality as we Understand it Today?

by the Revd Dr Jonathan Tallon, Biblical Studies tutor at Northern Baptist College and Research Programme Director and tutor at Luther King House

Jonathan Tallon

Introduction

Most of the time, our problem with the Bible isn’t trying to understand it but rather it’s trying to follow it in our daily lives. ‘Love God’ and ‘love your neighbour’ are simple, straightforward commands, that we constantly try to achieve and yet constantly fall down on, throwing ourselves repeatedly on God’s mercy. In addition, there’s  the grand Protestant tradition of expecting everyone, not just priests or academics, to read Scripture, relying on its plain meaning. And most of the time, that is right.

Most of the time…

However, if we apply our modern cultural understanding of ‘sexuality’ as we read the Bible it can seriously mislead us – because the Bible doesn’t really say anything at all about homosexuality as we understand it today.

The Problem

Occasionally, we can get tripped up and not even realise that how we understand the ‘plain meaning’ of a passage is utterly different from what people in the first century would have actually understood to be the plain meaning.

How come?

In many areas, the past is like the present. Humans haven’t changed much in 2,000 years. We still get angry, fall in love, like to play, show off, gossip, tell jokes and so on.

But in some areas the changes from ancient Roman culture to (post)modern western cultures have been immense, and cultural understanding of sexuality is one of them.

Modern Understanding of Sexuality

Fundamental to a modern understanding of sexuality for many people is the idea of ‘orientation’ – that most adults are sexually attracted to one gender or the other. And we have terms for this – ‘heterosexual’ for those attracted to the other gender from their own, ‘homosexual’ for those attracted to the same gender, ‘bisexual’ for those attracted to both.

So if I tell you, ‘Keith is homosexual’, you expect him to be attracted to other men, perhaps to be in relationship with one of them, perhaps even to have a man as a partner.

Reading the Bible from a Current Sexuality Framework

And so you open your Bible and are reading 1 Corinthians 6:9, and see a reference to ‘homosexual offenders’ (NIV) or ‘homosexual perverts’ (GNB). You read Romans 1:27, and note the reference to ‘men committing indecent acts with other men’. And it seems that the plain meaning of Scripture is staring you in the face.

Maybe you’d like it to be otherwise. Maybe you don’t understand what’s so wrong. But it appears to be the plain meaning of Scripture. The Bible appears to say that being homosexual – gay or lesbian – is not OK.

But you’re not comparing like with like.

Ancient Roman Sexuality – Dominance not Orientation

How different was the ancient Roman approach to sexuality from ours? Completely. A happily (from his point of view) married freeborn man could also rape his male and female slaves, rape boys, and sleep with prostitutes, and neither his masculinity nor his sexuality (nor indeed his honour) would be in question at all.

In ancient Rome, sexuality wasn’t defined by who (which gender) you had sex with, but whether you were either the dominant, active partner, or alternatively the submissive, passive one. So long as a freeborn man was the dominant partner, little else mattered so long as no-one else’s honour was affected (and slaves and prostitutes had no honour to affect) (see Williams, Roman Homosexuality 2010, 3). Sexuality was not tied to orientation, but to action – to be the active partner was to be virile and manly. To be a passive partner was to be weak and effeminate.

The Widespread Acceptance of Pederasty

In particular, and perhaps most alien to our culture, pederasty by men was commonplace and not sanctioned either legally or socially – it was simply part of everyday life. An ancient Roman’s masculinity could be demonstrated by aggressive sex with a slave, whether male or female. Boys were seen as equally desirable as women – until the boys started to grow a beard, at which point they became off-limits (so the boys involved would typically be aged from about ten to eighteen years old).

What this means is that same-sex activity by an adult male was practically always abusive. As an example, the Roman poet Martial uses the term ‘cut to pieces’ for the passive partner. The passive partner was seen as ‘used, humiliated, and physically and morally damaged’ (Ruden, Paul Among the People, 2010, 49). The active partner could carry on, using boys and discarding them as they grew older. It is telling that the Romans have no word for ‘homosexual’, but had two for the boy slave who was kept precisely for this purpose and abused in this way by his master (deliciae and concubinus).

Let’s be clear. If, in the ancient Roman Empire you talk about ‘men having sex with males’, everyone would have understood you to mean men raping and abusing boys, usually slaves.

Were there Roman Homosexual Couples?

But what about ancient same-sex couples? Weren’t there loving gay and lesbian couples? After all, I said human nature hasn’t changed, and some people back then must have been gay or lesbian as we understand it today.

I’m sure there were some people 2,000 years ago who were gay. And I’m sure that some would have formed adult loving relationships. But they mainly remained hidden from the rest of society – a secret that if it became known would destroy the reputation and honour of at least one of the couple. The evidence that we have mostly comes from private material: charms, spells, graffiti, or from insults from others. There simply wasn’t the cultural space for a committed relationship between adult males in Rome at the time of Paul. In today’s society, pederasty is condemned, and adult loving same-sex relationships mainly accepted. But in Roman times, pederasty was accepted, and to have intercourse with an adult male was not.

Examples from Ancient Christian and Jewish Writers

This cultural approach is alien to us, so it is hard to accept. But Jewish criticisms of male same-sex activity in Roman times assumed that one of the participants would be a boy – pederasty. Here’s an example from Philo, who lived about the same time as Paul, and like Paul was Jewish.

‘And let the man who is devoted to the love of boys submit to the same punishment, since he pursues that pleasure which is contrary to nature…’
Philo, Special Laws 3.39

The earliest Christians also attacked pederasty as something routinely accepted by society but rejected by the Church. The earliest interpretation of Romans 1:26-27 that we have (by Athenagoras, a second century Christian) assumes that Paul is talking about pederasty:

‘For those who have set up a market for fornication and established infamous resorts for the young for every kind of vile pleasure, who do not abstain even from males, males with males committing shocking abominations… …These adulterers and pederasts defame the eunuchs and the once-married…’
Athenagoras, Apology 34.

And this assumption carries on through the first few centuries of the Church. Writer after writer condemns pederasty, calling it ‘child corruption’ (see the Didache 2:2; the Epistle of Barnabas 19.4; Justin Martyr, Dial. Trypho 95; Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 3.12; Athanasius, Vita Antonii 74, Gregory of Nazianzus, Adv. Eunomianos (orat. 27) 6).

This, then, is the background to Paul’s letters. He lived in a world where a freeborn man was expected to have intercourse with his wife, his slaves and prostitutes, and as the active partner to demonstrate his virility and masculinity by this, irrespective of the gender of the slaves or prostitutes.

Homosexuality – a Misleading Term in New Testament Times

This shows how misleading using a term like ‘homosexuality’ is when talking of the New Testament.

First, the ancient world was generally uninterested in questions of orientation, but much more concerned with questions of action.

Secondly, there was no term for ‘homosexual’. Terms used defined who was the active, dominant person and who was classed as the passive, submissive participant.

Thirdly, in public discourse, if anyone referred to an adult man having intercourse with males, the natural assumption would be that the males were boys. Other assumptions would include that no equal relationship was involved, and that the boy would be humiliated. But what would not be assumed is that the adult only had intercourse with boys; the listener would expect the man also to have intercourse with women (slaves and prostitutes) and also would assume that the man was married (or would be married in the future).

How does this Affect our Reading of Scripture?

How does this affect our reading of Scripture? It should at least stop us from (in this case) naïve appeals to the ‘plain meaning of Scripture’ when debating this issue. However if we then look at other passages, the wider context was one where male same-sex activity generally meant pederasty. Recognising this as the background raises the question as to how to apply texts that were written in a sexual cultural context vastly different from our own.

But what about Romans 1 26-27?

At this point some readers might be wondering about the controversial verses in Romans 1:26-27 – even if the general background was one of pederasty, surely here Paul is plainly referring to men having sex with men and women with women? Again, this is one of those unusual cases where a combination of translation and context means that we can be seriously misled in a number of different ways. There isn’t space in this article to unpack this (I cover this passage in more detail here) but for now notice that Paul actually writes ‘males with males’ and not ‘men with men’ (many translations mask this). The use of ‘males’ was a common one within the Greco-Roman culture to recognise that one of the participants would be, not a man, but a boy. This is one example of why we need to appreciate how radically different the sexual culture of Ancient Rome was from that of Britain today.

Conclusion

In our modern world, ‘homosexuality’ might conjure up images of loving couples of the same gender in long term relationships. However, the world of the New Testament had no word for ‘homosexuality’ and precious little visibility of anything like our image today. For the ancient world, male-male sex meant pederasty, it meant abuse, it meant rape, it was something married men did, and it often involved slaves or prostitutes or slave prostitutes. Do condemnations of that mean that we have to condemn loving, faithful relationships now? What is clear, however, is that the Bible doesn’t really say anything at all about homosexuality as we understand it today.

About the Author

Jonathan Tallon 3Revd Dr Jonathan Tallon trained at St John’s Nottingham and is now Biblical Studies tutor for Northern Baptist College. He is the Research Programme Director at Luther King House, where he also also teaches New Testament and Greek .  He has previously taught on a variety of Anglican courses as well as having been a parish priest. His own research interests include the interpretation of Paul in the early Church and his doctorate was on the concept of faith in the preaching of John Chrysostom.  

Jonathan runs the Bible and Homosexuality website and associated YouTube channel.  He enjoys photography as a hobby, and drinks too much coffee.

Further Reading

Ruden, S. (2010). Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time. New York: Image Books.

Williams, C. (2010). Roman Homosexuality (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

Posted in Does the Bible Really Say, Human Sexuality, Jonathan Tallon | 32 Comments

Unity – Has it Become a Golden Calf?

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of ViaMedia.News and Member of General Synod (writing in a personal capacity)

Jayne Ozanne (3)

It’s becoming clearer and clearer that the one thing holding “us” in the Church of England back from making any real progress on matters of sexuality and gender is the constant appeal from those “at the top” to “unity at all costs”.

We see it in the House of Bishops – where many feel that their vows to work to keep the Church “one” stops them from saying what they truly and personally believe.

We see it in the decisions from Lambeth Palace – where it seems acceptable to “sacrifice the few for the sake of the whole” in terms of invitations to Lambeth 2020, again in order to purportedly “keep us one”.

We see it in the wider Anglican Communion – where there is admonishment of any province who would seek to “break ranks” and instead go where they believe the Holy Spirit is leading them, which seems so ironic given we are constantly told that we need to be a prophetic church that listens to what God is telling us to do.

It seems to me that this thing called “unity” is not at all the loving fruit of an intimate relationship, such as that between Jesus and His Father as set out in John 17 or as part of an ‘integral whole’ as in 1 Corinthians 12, but rather a form of power to coerce and control.

Much has been made of the parallel between the Church and the LGBT community in terms of an abusive relationship, where the one in power continues to hit and hurt the more vulnerable party, before then apologising and saying that they are truly sorry and that they really do love the more vulnerable party.  When this is in “a union”, such as a marriage, the more vulnerable party normally feels that they have to stay in this abusive situation because of the “vows of unity” that they have made.  Indeed, they are normally frequently reminded of these vows by the one in power over them..

Enough!

This is not unity but abuse.

In fact it is normally called “coercive control” by the mental health professions.  It is unhealthy, it is based on fear and has nothing to do with love.  It seeks to manipulate and control, at all costs, and is impervious to the harm that it does to the vulnerable party.

So it leads me to ask the question – is “coercive control” alive and kicking in our Church?  If so, I fear that this concept of “unity” has become the ultimate Golden Calf.

In the belief that the “truth shall set us free” I suggest we look at the facts:

1. The truth is we are NOT united!  It has become patently clear that the Anglican Communion is already split.  GAFCON are calling their own conference, ordaining their own bishops, setting up their own churches – and we appear to carry on as if we don’t see or recognise this for what it is.

2.  The truth is that there are many churches in the Church of England that are planning and preparing different structures of accountability – as long as they can find a way of taking their pensions with them!  They can “see the writing on the wall” and know there is an inevitability that the Church of God – across the world – is moving in a direction that they do not wish to travel.

3. The truth is that two wrongs never make a right!  We are told we are unable to change doctrine, even if we know deep down that the Holy Spirit is at work and showing us the past errors of our understanding of Scripture, for fear of reprisals in countries where Christianity is a minority faith.  Personally I find this extremely difficult to understand – we are saying that we know that the way we treat the LGBT community is wrong, but we can’t change it because of fear? Because of a greater wrong that is being done?

There is so much else that can be written about the way that this false notion of unity has caused a prison from which few can break free and find true freedom of life, but the starting point has to be to “name it”.

So let’s start calling it out for what it is.

And once we have recognised it for what it is – let us repent of it and ask that the Spirit of Love and Truth will set us free to appreciate true unity when we see it – like between two people who love each other and want to become one in God’s sight!

 

 

 

Posted in Human Sexuality, Jayne Ozanne | 7 Comments

Safeguarding & Survival Systems – Loyalty vs Trust

by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper & the Rt Revd Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham – co-authors of ‘To Heal and Not to Hurt’

Rosie & Alan

In an interesting quirk of coincidence the book that we co-wrote, To Heal and not to Hurt, was published on the same day as the BBC Panorama program Scandal in the Church of England was broadcast.

Panorama was very carefully researched and took a cool, measured look at serious safeguarding issues in the Lincoln Diocese. The degree of cover-up was extraordinary, except of course that it was actually all too ordinary. The Safeguarding lead bishop, Rt Revd Peter Hancock, did all the familiar hand-wringing and apologising. He seemed very sincere but offered not the slightest glimmer of hope that anything was actually going to be different.

In our book we look at 15 examples of the type of abuse that happened (they are true) and is likely to continue to happen within the church. We make some concrete suggestions which, if implemented, would make a considerable difference. Of course there is resistance from the top. They do not want to make any of these changes, mostly it seems because they introduce both accountability and taking responsibility for the consequences of cover up and wrongdoing.

Instead we have more courses, training, staff and meetings. It’s still a tight circle and needless to say survivors are mostly kept out!

The other dynamic of the book  (do buy it!) is a long hard look at the internal drivers: theological, cultural, emotional. It comes down to that oft quoted point: ‘good people do good things, bad people do bad things, but it takes religion to make good people do bad things.’ But why? Why when we preach that ‘the truth will set you free’, do we then find ourselves watching open-mouthed as senior clerics make defensive statements that are peppered with inaccuracies. What is happening on the inside that makes such behaviour seem reasonable?

Whilst discussing with a mutual friend the multiple high octane apologies from people who seem genuinely deeply sorry for the suffering of survivors without being able to help them effectively we came across the following theory.

It makes a lot of sense, but if it is true it is chilling.  It is based on the concept of Systems of Survival, which was first developed by Jane Jacobs – an American Urban Activist.

Her basic hypothesis is that that there are only two ways of making a living (ie. Surviving): Either (i) you have Territory, a space on which you can grow, hunt, fish, farm etc , or (ii) you find or make things to Sell.

Each of these two Systems of Survival is based on a separate set of values.

The first system is based on Loyalty and the second on Trust.  The Loyalty cultures are Politics, Government, Armies, Church etc.  The Trust cultures are based around commerce where deal-making is vital. As a society we need both.

The error that we, and many like us have been making, is that we expect folk in the Loyalty cultures to be Trustworthy when we should in fact only trust them to be Loyal.

This explains why in certain institutions that they may have very tight and well-developed whistle-blowing policies, in the end it is inevitably the whistle blower themselves who lose their jobs.

It also explains how, if you are critical of anything in the Church the response never ever tackles the actual issue. The offence is not being right or wrong, the offence is being disloyal. The offence is daring to speak at all!

This would help explain why George Pitcher, who until 2011 was Secretary for Public Affairs for the Archbishop of Canterbury, had no compunction in commenting in a memo: (IICSA Day 8 Page 154-5 (Chichester))

“+Hind may have to be thrown to the press as a sacrifice. The potential scale of the scandal though — it seems to me — is such that the backwash must reach the Archbishop (quoting from a previously received email).

The real danger here is that these stories are used to suggest that the CofE is as bad as Rome, both in abuse and cover-up”

The game is to say what is necessary to protect the Institution. The actual truth is, it seems, secondary.

And Loyalty is what we have seen in Church Safeguarding.  Loyalty to those who are in the team, in our camp, flying our flag.

However hard outsiders like the two of us implore the Church to put survivors first they are genuinely unable to do so.  They can tweak the internal systems and processes, and they can wring their hands, but as for putting survivors at the heart of things – that is impossible.

That place in their heart is already occupied by the Institution.

 

‘To Heal and Not To Hurt’ is available for £9.35 from WH Smith and is published by Darton Longman Todd.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Human Sexuality, Rosie Harper, Sexual abuse, Spiritual Abuse | 2 Comments

Integrity, Compromise & the Church of England

by the Revd Andrew Foreshew-Cain, former Member of General Synod

andrew f cain

Is it possible to have integrity when you are compromised?

I recently read an excellent  piece on just this by Stephen Parsons on his ‘Surviving Church’ blog, which raised just this question.  You can read the whole thing here.  In it he explores what integrity looks like for those caught up in the institutional Church and the severe strain that the demands of defending the institution puts on honourable people.

He states that:

‘‘integrity’ is one which has many facets.  It is closely aligned to another word ‘wholeness’.  Both words speak of human flourishing in terms of health, honesty and goodness.  Integrity has a special link with the idea of moral trustworthiness.  A person of integrity is someone who can never betray moral principles in order to preserve their own interests or those of another party, such as an institution.’

And there is the problem.  Because the personal integrity of many of us within the Church is compromised if we collude with the institution in defence of its practises and set behaviours, which are in direct contradiction  to our own conscience and sense of what  is morally right.

Stephen’s blog is primarily about the ongoing scandal of clerical abuse in the Church of England.  He talks specifically about the integrity of the Archbishop of Canterbury in relation to these abuses. He concludes that there is no doubt that Archbishop is a man of integrity but that his integrity is deeply compromised by the institution he serves and, Stephen believes, by the demands of personal loyalties from the Archbishop’s past.  This leads the Archbishop to defend the institution he seeks to serve in the only way that he sees he can.

‘There is a real sense in which his integrity is being severely compromised by outside loyalties to mysterious forces who are setting the wider agenda and who care little for these needs….By repeating the establishment line, he manages to avoid experiencing the real costs of his position of sincerity.  He manages to live simultaneously in two places.  He identifies with survivors/victims while remaining loyal to those who shut them out for being too disruptive to the status-quo.’

As I read this blog I couldn’t help but think about the other great challenge to the integrity of Bishops that weighs so heavily on them, and not simply the further challenge to the integrity of the Archbishop revealed by his decision to exclude the spouses of gay bishops from the Lambeth Conference and his expression of ‘pain’ at that decision.

The current practice of the Church of England in relation to its gay and lesbian clergy and our relationships undermines not only the integrity of the Church as an institutional committed to high moral standards. It is also corrosive of the integrity of the Bishops themselves, as they knowingly engage in a game of “hide and seek” with the truth.

A friend of mine was recently licensed to a parish and prior to that licensing they had an interview with their new bishop.  This friend is in a relationship with a person of the same sex and inevitably the Bishop, clearly deeply embarrassed and uncomfortable, asked my friend whether they were having sex.  My friend, with admirable swiftness of thought, replied ‘Not at the moment, Bishop, I am having coffee with you. ’ The Bishop didn’t pursue the conversation.

Now, whilst amusing as an anecdote as to the absurdity of the Church of England’s current patterns of behaviour, what does the exchange do to the integrity of both of them?

The Bishop can, of course, claim that he has asked “the question” – as he is currently required to do – and been given a satisfactory answer.  The priest can console themselves with their wit, that they didn’t lie, and that the Bishop was left in no doubt as to the reality of their relationship with their partner.  Both are in different ways compromised and their integrity devalued by  a Church that puts them in such a situation.

The Bishop because he knows what the real answer is and is none the less pretending to himself and to anyone who asks that it isn’t what he knows to be  true, and the priest because they know that the rules of the Church are clear that they should be celibate, and that they are breaking those rules with the full knowledge of their Bishop and expecting that nothing will be done about it.  The Church of England officially regards their sexual relationship as sinful and wrong as that of an adulterer or those having sex outside marriage. They could, if it were proved, be liable to a Clergy Discipline Measure being brought against them, though of course it is hard to imagine how such a case would be brought and arguably no Bishop would want such a charge to be made.

Now, to be clear, I intend no criticism of my friend or of any priest placed in this situation by the Church of England.  They are faced with an unenviable choice between honesty and some form of dissembling if they wish to exercise a priestly ministry and many are content to allow the truth to remain known but unspoken. Few, I think, would want to condemn them for this game of deceptions and half truths that they are forced to play with the full knowledge of the hierarchy.  I do know of some who have made it clear that they will not play the expected game, and are entirely frank with their Bishop.  Fortunately for them, however, they are clergy in established roles, with Bishops who are privately supportive and who would be embarrassed to do anything about what they have been told.

This embarrassment and dissembling is widespread across the Church at all levels.  It is there in the meetings between gay and lesbian prospective ordinands and their DDO’s, in theological colleges and at ordinations every summer where newly minted curates celebrate with their lovers and partners and at licensings where clergy are introduced to parishes, often with their partners known but sadly unacknowledged in public.

It is a falsehood that lies at the heart of the ministry of the Church of England and the policies governing it A falsehood that the Bishops know to be active and damaging but which they regard as a convenient one that saves them from addressing the truth of the lives of many of their clergy.  It enables them to hold onto an imagined loyalty to a regime in the Church of England that they believe that they must value above the truth even as they know it lacks integrity.

The House of Bishops contains many allies who are aware of the impact of the current practise on the integrity of the Church of England, and as Stephen Parsons has said ‘Integrity has a special link with the idea of moral trustworthiness’.  There can be no doubt that any society will question  the moral worth of any community that knowingly allows such a fundamental lack of integrity to corrupt its very heart.

The Campaign for Equal Marriage acknowledges the dilemma for the House of Bishops as they seek to lead a Church in which it seems a vocal and powerful minority see discrimination against gay and lesbian people as a “divine command” and the increasing majority who see it as abhorrent and morally wrong.  As with the case of the Church’s inadequate responses to clerical abuse and the Iwerne scandal they are collectively caught between what they believe and see, and the demands of the institution and its wider connections.  We have to have sympathy with them and encourage them to think and pray about how to reconcile that they believe and what they told, and fear, that they have to do.

Stephen concludes his piece with the following words ‘ The Church will always honour the memory of people of integrity and honour.  It will be less impressed by those who followed the way of toeing the party line, even when they knew that line to be false and dishonest.’  That is certainly true of those who have defended and hidden the scandal of clergy abuse, and the current failings of the Church of England to respond to the cry for justice from those who have been hurt.

It will also, I believe,  in time come to be seen to be true about the way that the Bishops of this generation have behaved towards their gay and lesbian clergy and their partners.

 

 

Posted in Andrew Foreshew-Cain, Human Sexuality | Leave a comment

Voices of Hope – Easter Day

“Breaking the Silence” by the Rt Revd Nicholas Chamberlain, Bishop of Grantham

BIshop Nicholas

Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!”’ – John 20.16

With two words, everything changes.

Silence is broken and out of the darkness of night and the sadness of mourning comes the gift of a new beginning:  The first Easter.

Whenever I hear these words, I am filled with hope.

With Mary, I have been waiting: I have experienced love and loss; I have acknowledged sin; I have faced the cross.

Will I be able to speak this Easter as Mary spoke that first Easter?  Will I have the courage to utter my own words of love as I respond to the God who calls me by name?  I pray that I might.

As I have pondered so many different things this Lent, one of the things that has struck me most is the power of silence.  Silence can be good.  However, silence can also imprison and disempower.

Many LGBT+ people have experienced the disempowerment of silence and of being silenced.  Thankfully, many LGBT+ people have also found our voices.  We do not speak with the same tone – we are all different – but we have learnt the importance of authentic speech, and we have learnt how to speak well in difficult contexts.

The Church in its different denominations needs people who can speak authentic words of love now.  The Church is called to serve a fractured world, tired and divided in many ways.  In order to serve that world, the Church needs to draw on the skills and the faith and the courage and the humility of all Christians.

On this joyful Easter Day, as I stand beside the Easter fire in the fens of Lincolnshire, I will be praying that God’s people will shake off fear, ignorance and prejudice and reach out to each other and to the world in love – and that we will do this whatever our gender identity, sexuality or personal circumstances – relishing in the skills, companionship and difference of all who stand alongside us.

Happy Easter!

A Prayer

Lord God,

Who calls us all into being

     and who grants the free gift of resurrection life,

Help us to respond to your gift with joy

      and to share the good news of your love

     with all with whom we live our lives.

In Jesus’ name.

Amen.

Thank you for taking part in our #VoicesofHope Lent journey – please could you take just a few minutes to give us your feedback on the series?

 

Posted in Guest Contributors, Human Sexuality, Voices of Hope | 1 Comment