Journeys in, or moving away from, Grace and Truth?
by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
The book ‘Journeys in Grace and Truth’ will no doubt be persuasive for many readers in its consistently argued thesis that the Church of England must abandon its historic doctrinal and ethical teaching, and fully affirm same sex relationships. All of the contributors position themselves on the evangelical wing of the church and claim a high regard for the authority of the Bible, and almost all make reflection on one or more passages of Scripture central to their argument. Given the sub-title of the book “Revisiting Scripture and sexuality”, and the evangelical conviction that truth is to be found in the Word of God rather than in our experiences, however heartfelt, it’s fair to ask: Is the treatment of Scripture recognizably orthodox? Is there anything fresh or new here which might cause me to embark on the same journey most of the authors have undertaken, and change my mind? Here are some examples of ‘revisiting Scripture’ in the book, with my summaries and comments.
Bishop Paul Bayes and Acts 10
The Bishop of Liverpool begins his essay with his take on the story of the apostle Peter’s encounter with the Gentile Roman centurion Cornelius. Paul Bayes appears to be saying Peter was guided by Scripture in initially believing that certain foods were unclean and Gentiles could not be saved. But his experience of the dream, and of Cornelius’ household receiving the Spirit, over-rode the teaching of the Old Testament, which could now validly be set aside in favour of a new reality. In the same way, the Bishop perceives the love of God received and shared by faithful gay Christians, to be God doing a new thing by his Spirit which (by implication) should override traditional understandings of Scripture on the sexuality issue.
But this understanding of Acts 10 forgets the crucial fact that the New Testament is a fulfilment of the Old, and the Spirit brings greater revelation of its truth not a rejection of it in favour of a ‘new’ truth. Peter’s blind spot about mission to the Gentiles came from his contemporary culture – if he had read his Old Testament he would have seen that in many places it predicts the salvation and inclusion in the Kingdom of Gentiles through faith in Israel’s Messiah. With the conversion of Cornelius, the Spirit was fulfilling this – duly recognized by the apostles in Acts 15:16-17. Bishop Bayes’ conviction that the contemporary discovery of the ‘goodness’ in LGBT relationships is a sign of God changing his mind and over-riding his earlier instructions is a serious error and certainly not evangelical.
David Ison and Matthew 15:21-28
Ison calls himself an evangelical but as Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral has been a prominent advocate of revisionist teaching about sex and marriage and his explanation of his approach to Scripture confirms this. As soon as anyone tries to define what the Bible teaches on a subject, Ison argues, he sets himself up as an ‘interpreting authority’ and ‘arbiter of truth’ – rather “The Bible shows God’s people seeking to interpret Scripture across time and culture” whereas only Jesus himself is ‘the Word of God’. However, this high view of Christ appears to be contradicted in Ison’s brief treatment of the story in Matthew 15, where we are told “a woman from Tyre…changed his presumption that the Good News was only for the House of Israel”.
Now admittedly this story is challenging, as it appears on first reading to suggest that Jesus did change his position, first saying “it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs”, and then after the woman’s persistence, Jesus heals her daughter. But however we interpret this story, one option not open to us as Christians is to say, with Ison, that Jesus was wrong and had to be corrected in his mission theology by a Gentile woman – especially if we affirm that he is the living Word of God! [My own view, following many interpreters, is that Jesus initially played along with the disciples’ racism in order to expose them, turn the situation around and teach them about God’s grace to the Gentiles, which as we have already seen was part of his plan revealed in the Old Testament].
David Newman on Acts 15
Unlike Paul Bayes, Archdeacon Newman does recognize in his treatment of the ‘inclusion of Gentiles’ question that while the apostles saw that God was doing a new thing in giving the Spirit to a previously excluded people, this needed to be checked with Scripture and indeed it was predicted in the Old Testament (ACts 15:16-17). Now that these Gentiles were welcomed into the church, how should they live? Acts 15:19-20 gives us the answer: they would not be expected to follow the OT ceremonial laws (which had been fulfilled in Christ) and which had acted like a ‘yoke’ for God’s people. Newman applies this for today in the expectations that the church places on gay people joining the church – they should not be expected to be celibate, and to make any restrictions in terms of behaviour would be “unduly prescriptive and judging of same-sex intimacy”.
But this interpretation completely ignores the clear instruction of verse 20. Gentiles who have accepted Christ are given one clear ceremonial command – avoid certain ways of preparing and eating meat closely associated in those days with idol worship, and one ethical command – avoid sexual immorality. This makes it clear that the apostles, following Jesus, continued to regard sex outside of heterosexual marriage to be sin, and they considered a clean break from pagan practices in worship and sex to be a sine qua non of true discipleship for new believers from a Gentile background. Of course that would have been a huge cost, but counter-cultural sexual ethics became one of the defining features of the church and perhaps one of the reasons for its expansion in the Gentile world.
Gavin Collins on 1 Corinthians 7
Collins, also an Archdeacon, who affiliates with the New Wine network, addresses the same key issue of appropriate sexual ethics for same sex attracted believers. His argument initially seems compelling. The apostle Paul in 1 Cor 7:8-9 commends celibate singleness, but says marriage is best for the majority to provide intimacy and an outlet for the sex drive. If this is true for heterosexuals, it must also be true for gay people – in fact it is “practically and pastorally unrealistic” to “impose forced celibacy or heterosexual marriage as the only options for someone with a deep-rooted same sex attractedness”. To do so either encourages secret promiscuity or psychological harm. The church must therefore encourage gay people who cannot live celibate lives to marry others of the same sex, based on faithfulness and commitment. “How can I deny this?” is Collins’ conclusion.
There have to be several responses to this. Firstly, if church leaders are guided primarily by a desire not to be seen to deny people what they think will make them happy, rather than the demands of our creator and Saviour on our lives, then the church has explicitly moved away from a recognizably Christian doctrinal basis. Secondly, does the Archdeacon really believe that celebrating gay marriages in the church will bring to an end the problems of sexual and psychological dysfunction among gay people, Christians and in society at large? What about promiscuity among young people, infidelity in marriage, cohabitation, porn addiction by married heterosexuals? As we have seen the early church was not afraid to promote a strict, costly and counter-cultural sexual ethic, believing that in putting sin to death by the power of the Spirit we find life (Romans 8:12-13). Thirdly, Collins like many of the authors in this volume simply assumes that sexual orientation is fixed, unchanging, given by God from birth and the main defining characteristic of our identity. This is unsupported by science, increasingly out of date according to contemporary LGBT advocates, and not aligned with Scripture.
Marcus Green on Mark 10:46-52
Marcus Green’s detailed testimony of his journey to being a vicar and an openly gay man is informative, moving and at times amusing. He ends with the story of Jesus’ healing of Bartimaeus in Mark 10, a text on which he preached when considering whether to return to full time ministry. In the dark days of Israel’s last King, Zedekiah had fled from Jerusalem with his sons but they were caught by the Babylonians; the sons were killed and the King blinded. “Now [hundreds of years later] Jesus hears a blind man cry out in Jericho and sees the chance to put right a ‘long wrong’…redemption is coming”. Green goes on to ask how might Jesus be putting right a ‘long wrong’ today, and concludes that for him at that time it was as a gay man who had been excluded but now was about to be restored to his rightful place as a minister in God’s church.
But Green appears to overlook a much more obvious point in this passage – the miraculous healing of a blind man! Bartimaeus has an affliction which prevents him from living life to the full. Jesus solution is not to ‘include’ him as a blind man; to give him his disability rights as it were, but to restore him to wholeness so he is no longer blind. Just as the blind man can petition Jesus “I want to see”, isn’t a more obvious application the same sex attracted man or woman who cries out “I want to be set free from desire for intimate relationships with the same sex”?
But just as people tried to shut Bartimaeus up, so today the voice of ex-gays and those seeking a way out of homosexuality is silenced. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day followed culturally constructed explanations of why people were blind, paralysed or sick in other ways, and left them as they were. They were outraged when Jesus met such people with deep compassion, forgave sins, healed and re-integrated them into supportive communities. So today many are offended by the suggestion that Jesus has come to set us free from sin rather than bless us in it.
Anthony Archer on Romans 1:18-32
More than one of the authors in this volume combine a personal journey of movement from a conservative to ‘affirming’ position, with a survey of biblical texts which appear to condemn homosexual practice but are reinterpreted to mean something else. Lay reader Anthony Archer summarises commentator John Boswell’s take on Romans 1:24-27 – that Paul’s strong language cannot refer to modern examples of faithful loving gay partnerships but must be about the ‘unnatural’ practice of heterosexual men and women having gay sex, or perhaps it’s not about sex at all but about idolatry.
What is disappointing here and in other sections of the book is that the authors are simply repeating standard liberal interpretations from (in some cases) decades ago, yet do not engage at all with the many conservative commentators such as Robert Gagnon, Ian Paul and Martin Davie who have refuted these revisionist interpretations repeatedly and in detail. Even liberal theologians such as Dan Via, William Loader and Walter Wink are clear that the key biblical texts on homosexual practice are unequivocally negative, and say that in order to promote a progressive agenda while being honest with the text one must disregard the Bible as valid for ethical instruction today, rather than trying to twist its words to mean something which they clearly do not say. The ‘Journeys in Grace and Truth’ authors also do not engage with the obvious question of why the church throughout its history, and the majority of the worldwide church today, rejects these ‘affirming’ interpretations, especially when to do so in today’s Western society is increasingly unpopular.
Jayne Ozanne on Luke 23:34
In her Preface to the book, Jayne Ozanne speaks directly to gay Christians who feel they have not been fully welcomed and their relationships celebrated by the Church, and have suffered “lonely heartache and pain”. She says “please know that in my mind you bear the stigmata of Christ – wounds inflicted by a Church that ‘knows not what it does’. May you still find it somehow in your heart to cry ‘Father forgive’…”
It’s important to pin down what Ozanne is saying here. She is directly comparing the internal anguish of people living in England in 2016, completely free to practice a lifestyle of their choice, free to believe and live out any faith and determine their own identity, with the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross in which he took on himself the judgement of God for the sins of the world. She is comparing Christians who out of prayerful obedience, faith and pastoral concern are trying to keep the church aligned with the revealed Word of God, with the Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus. The views of the book’s authors including Jayne Ozanne on one hand, and those she criticizes so offensively on the other – can they really coexist in the same church with “good disagreement”? It is surely time for separation.
A press release for the book can be found here.
Anglican Mainstream’s digest of articles on the C of E’s conversations about sex can be found here