Comments on the C of E report 'Living in Love and Faith'

Tony Higton

 

In dealing with this issue, I want to make it clear that we are called to love homosexual people even if we disagree with them. Please see the appendix “My attitude to homosexual people.”

The crucial issue about this report is its treatment of Scripture. In line with the historic and legal position of the Church of England, the Introduction refers to “Scripture, our final authority” (vii) and says “The Bible is central to the life of the Church.” It is “God’s Word written” (295). It’s main message on this aspect is that those who accept homosexual practice take the Bible as seriously as those who don’t.

I don’t doubt that many Christians who accept homosexual practice sincerely think they are taking the Bible seriously but I believe they are misled. Various points are made by them which may contain helpful aspects but which also lead to an undermining of biblical authority.

Those who believe the Bible approves of homosexual practice need to be discerning about factors which influence them.  I am not accusing liberals of being dishonest but I do believe that one of the strong motives for accepting liberal views is seeking to justify what we want to be true. This may not be obvious to the people concerned but I think they need to ask themselves questions about it. I understand people wanting to make the Bible accept homosexual practice. But it doesn’t. This may sound like naïve dogmatism. But, for 35 years, I have been carefully weighing up the arguments used to try to make out that the Bible accepts homosexual practice. I have talked with many pro-gay people. The idea that the Bible approves homosexual practice is simply incorrect. People may want to justify homosexual practice but they shouldn’t try to make the Bible agree with them.

In my view, the most serious issue is that, once we start either ignoring biblical teaching or trying to make the Bible say what it manifestly doesn’t say about one subject, we potentially undermine its teaching on other subjects, some of them more important. For example, this could include saying that Jesus is not the only Saviour because we want to accept other religions, or universalism because we want everyone to get to heaven. Both of these statements can cause the church to fail non-Christians very seriously.

 

ATTITUDE TO THE BIBLE

1.      The report outlines seven different views of the Bible in the church. They range from the Bible being “truthful, inerrant and clear” to “a collection of fallible human voices” (295-7).

2.      The report itself stresses “our knowledge of the Bible is provisional and our understanding partial” (40). So, it says, we must pay “attention to the voices of reason and mercy”, listen to “the wisdom and perspectives of others” including those who “understand the complexities of translating the Bible and of appropriating its historical context to that of our contemporary world.” “We need help to understand how the Church has interpreted the Bible through the ages” (40).

It stresses we need to use reason to “analyse texts, making connections between one text and another” (41). It continues “This book is an invitation to engage in this interdisciplinary learning with confidence, wonder and humility because we are accompanied by the God who is the source of all life and truth” (42). The report also stresses that we need to learn from history, although it admits that this is open to different interpretations (43).

This all sounds good, and we do need help understanding really difficult passages of Scripture. But I want to say loud and clear that God is a God of revelation not obfuscation. In really important matters – to do with salvation – God makes himself clear, whatever the cultural and linguistic factors. In such a significant subject as basic sexual morality, which is important to salvation (faith must be expressed in good works) God will make himself clear. And the basic teaching on sexuality is clear and, as the church has recognised, has been over 2000 years.

3.      The report stresses the openness of Jesus to radical new ideas. It says “The Gospel accounts are full of surprises: a Roman centurion is praised for his faith (Luke 7.9); Jesus welcomes a corrupt tax official (Luke 19.1-10); Jesus accepts physically intimate expressions of devotion that defy social mores (John 12.3-8)” (45). The implication seems to be that Jesus would have been open to taking a positive line on homosexual practice. But there is no evidence whatsoever for this – it is an argument from silence. Commending a Roman centurion for having faith in him, Zacchaeus, a corrupt tax collector who turned to repentance, and Mary for anointing his feet has no relevance whatsoever to accepting homosexual practice. There is an emotive trend in the report where logic and responsible biblical interpretation are set aside. The positivity of Jesus’ response to these three people as well as the sometimes emotional stories recorded in the report (which must be taken seriously) should not cause us to make an unsubstantiated jump over our interpretation of the Bible.

4.      The report accepts that “There is no dispute that a number of biblical texts contain condemnations of same-sex sexual behaviours or relationships” (279). But then, like all those seeking to make the Bible accept homosexual practice, it asks what the Bible means by these condemnations? “What were the behaviours or relationships imagined and addressed by the authors of these texts, and why did they reject them? How similar are the forms that we encounter and experience today? Did the biblical writers, for example, view same-sex sexual relationships negatively because they violated God’s purposes for men and women in creation? Or were their targets very different from the committed, loving same-sex sexual relationships that we encounter today, perhaps because they refer to abusive relations, promiscuity, or sex in the context of pagan religious practices? And what if we are not in a position to give a firm answer to these questions, because we simply don’t know enough about the historical context or about the meanings of the words used? Again, rather different applications of the Bible’s teaching to present-day situations flow from different answers to these questions” (279). However, New Testament writers such as Paul would know of “committed faithful homosexual relationships.” There is contemporary and earlier historical evidence of such relationships. See also the report’s comment on Rom 1:26-27 below (289-290). It follows that since their condemnations are unqualified the biblical writers would include such relationships in their statements. If they believed that, contrary to tradition, committed relationships were blessed by God they would have made that clear. The argument that they were only condemning other sorts of homosexual behaviour is an argument from silence and shows the weakness of those seeking to substantiate the idea that the Bible approves homosexual practice.

5.      Another argument from silence is recorded in the report, showing yet again the weakness of the reasoning people use to justify believing the Bible accepts homosexual practice.

“In recent years, some Christians have argued that the Bible’s view of marriage can legitimately include same-sex couples. They agree that the overall picture of marriage in Scripture tends towards loving faithfulness and covenant loyalty as in the imagery of God and Israel and Christ and the Church. They view the male-female structure in the Genesis narrative as illustrative (perhaps seeing it as referring to the most common kind of pair that people form) rather than morally normative, and highlight the New Testament’s apparent lack of interest in procreation. The absence of same-sex relationships in Scripture is seen as arising simply because the historical context of the time did not envisage such relationships as being able to embody these qualities of marriage. This may be due to different cultural norms, to embedded cultural prejudice or because same-sex behaviour that was visible was transient and exploitative. Those who take this approach may also argue that the deepest principle that Scripture gives us for our ethical thinking is love – or liberation” (282-3).

Again, highly educated New Testament writers such as Paul would know of “committed faithful homosexual relationships”

6.      The report notes that polygamy is tolerated in the Old Testament and there are different approaches to divorce in the Bible. But polygamy is always heterosexual and is ruled out in the New Testament for those Christians who should set an example. Divorce is treated as an evil, even if sometimes the lesser of two evils. Again, it is divorce of heterosexual couples. To say that this means the Bible would perhaps justify homosexual practice is a huge, and unwarranted, leap.

7.      The report states: “We need to be alert to the fact that narrowing our interest to a few texts is likely to give a distorted picture of how Scripture as a whole speaks to us” (283). I would say that, on the contrary, the condemnation of homosexual practice is consistent throughout Scripture but, because it rarely occurred among God’s people, it is only mentioned explicitly on a few occasions.

8.      The report says that those who believe the Bible supports homosexual practice “argue that the deepest principle that Scripture gives us for our ethical thinking is love – or liberation (because Scripture consistently sides with those who are oppressed or invisible). If this is the case, then would not that arc of liberation and the central message of love move us to accept today same-sex relationships that display the fruit of the Spirit” (282-3).

Obviously, love – for God and for neighbour – is fundamental to biblical teaching. But what does love mean? Of course, it includes the fruit of the Spirit. But it is broader than that. In the same passage as he lists the fruit of the Spirit, Paul solemnly warns against sexual immorality (Gal 5:19). He also says “among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality” (Eph 5:3), “put to death … sexual immorality (Col 3:5). Jesus condemns sexual immorality which he distinguishes from adultery (Mt 15:19). Obviously, adultery is unloving because it betrays one’s married partner. But Jesus is saying sexual immorality is unloving. He calls it an “evil thought.” We cannot legitimately reduce the Bible’s message to “all you need is love.” We have to include avoiding sexual immorality as part of love and therefore we have to ask how the Bible defines sexual immorality. It very clearly includes homosexual practice as Paul says in 1 Tim 1:9 where he condemns “the sexually immoral [and] … those practising homosexuality.”  To argue that we can simply concentrate on the biblical emphasis on love and liberation and not face up to what it says about sinful sexual behaviour is a superficial attempt to avoid what the Bible does teach.

 

BIBLICAL PASSAGES

The report goes on to look at specific Bible passages:

1.      Lev 18:22; 20:13 “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman ….” The report comments Some have argued that some form of coercion or violence must lie behind the prohibition but this is not immediately apparent in the text. The context of both chapters looks at a range of prohibited relationships, which are more likely to be consensual” (287). It adds that others have said it refers to the head of a household being in an abusive relationship but it adds this does not mean it doesn’t apply to the entire community.

Others have claimed it applies specifically to Canaanite practice. The report comments “it is unclear why something displeasing to God in the Canaanite world would be solely culturally-bound. Levitical laws, however, are sometimes reflected in New Testament teaching, and these verses are generally agreed to be the source of comments on same-sex activity in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1, which indicates that they were seen as scripturally authoritative for Christian ethical discipleship” (288).

2.      Romans 1:26-27 “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. 

The report comments “Some have argued, however, that Paul may have had same-sex prostitution or pederasty (older men having sex with male youths) in mind, or pagan worship, though this is not explicit in the text. Paul does not seem to be referring to coercive, power-abusing or violent same-sex intercourse, since he appears to be speaking of freely chosen, consensual behaviour of men with men and women with women (which were known in the Greek world, although some scholars argue Paul is referring to non-vaginal male-female intercourse here). Therefore these verses have been seen as applying straightforwardly to same-sex relationships” (289-290).
 

The report then goes on to query Paul’s use of the word ‘natural’ in Rom 1:26 because he says that for a man to have long hair is against nature in 1 Cor 11:14. I have to say that to seek to draw a parallel between homosexual practice and the length of a man’s hair (which was clearly cultural) is not a credible argument.

3.      1 Corinthians 6:9-11Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

The report records that “Some therefore argue that the kind of same-sex sexual practices Paul has in mind are abusive in some way, such as the bodies of the strong and socially powerful taking advantage of the bodies of the weak. Some argue that the words Paul uses refer specifically to such abusive practices.” (292). But it comments “Whilst this interpretation is possible there were common Greek terms used to describe these practices, not used here by Paul.”

Then the reports states: “A further difficulty we face is that vice lists offer no explanation as to why what they reject is sinful.” (293). But surely the important thing is that this biblical passage does reject these homosexual practices as sinful.

4.      1 Tim 1:8-11Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave-traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.

The report comments that some people believe this passage refers to same-sex prostitution. But this is yet another argument from silence.

5.      Conclusion on biblical passages The report concludes “Until relatively recently they were universally and uncontroversially read as consistently rejecting all same-sex sexual behaviour. We have seen, however, that some now question this and interpret them as more narrowly focused, so leaving open the possibility of approving faithful, committed same-sex relationships.”  I have to say that the arguments for the Bible approving same-sex relationships are weak and unconvincing. It is one thing to accept faithful, committed same-sex relationships. It is quite another to say the Bible is not against them.

The report adds “How we understand the authority of these texts in relation to today also depends on our understanding of the Bible’s authority, unity and purpose. …. If we dismiss what seems to be obvious on first reading, are we saying there is no ‘plain meaning’ to Scripture and that only experts can read Scripture well? (294 my emphasis). I believe the plain meaning of Scripture in this subject is clear.

 

HEARING GOD OUTSIDE THE BIBLE

The report goes on to ask how God speaks to us through creation, through people outside the church and “through the shaping of people’s consciences and convictions – the deep patterns of their belief and imagination, formed by their faith and their experience” (272). The report includes many stories from people about their sexual experiences. I respond that we can take note of these things, and seek to understand the experiences and pain people have faced. But they don’t alter the fact that God has made the biblical teaching on sexuality clear.

 

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE

The church feels it is under pressure from society to accept same-sex marriage. The report outlines three responses which churches in different denominations have taken:

1.      Churches that continue to hold that same-sex marriage is contrary to Scripture but they offer pastoral care to homosexuals.

2.      Churches which hold together people with conflicting views on the subject: those rejecting same-sex marriage alongside those who hold services of blessing or marriages for same-sex couples and ministers who enter into a same-sex marriage.

3.      Churches which officially revise their formal teaching on marriage to accept same-sex marriage.

All three responses are represented in the Anglican Communion [153].  The report confirms that the Church of England’s current position is response 1 above. It quotes the Anglican Canon B 30 which states that ‘marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman.’  But it adds “One might see some evidence of the second category of responses – managing difference institutionally – in the diversity of practice across the Church of England’s worshipping communities, for instance with regard to including prayers for same-sex couples who wish to mark their commitment to one another within public worship. Such diversity, however, remains essentially informal” [130-134].

There seems little doubt to me that the report would like to see the church embrace response 2. It states “Some of us hold that faithful commitment can take other forms than marriage, and that there are many people who in other ways have made a commitment to live together as a couple that the church can recognize as good, while at the same time also inviting them to take a further step to confirm that commitment before God and the community. Some of us say that sexual activity belongs as appropriately to same-sex as it does to opposite-sex relationships – whether we think that means within a same-sex marriage, or within the relationships of those who have committed themselves to marriage, or within other patterns of faithful commitment.” [258]

The report records that in 2014 the House of Bishops decided that “those same-sex couples who choose to marry should be welcomed into the life of the worshipping 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” [144]. They should “be welcomed as full participants in congregational life [220].

It adds “clergy should not provide services of blessing’, but that ‘more informal kind of prayer, at the request of the couple, might be appropriate in the light of the circumstances’” [247]. Also “Members of the clergy and candidates for ordination who decide to enter into partnerships must … expect to be asked for assurances that their relationship will be consistent with the [traditional] teaching set out in Issues in Human Sexuality” [243].

Obviously, homosexuals should be welcomed to church and offered pastoral support. But, as we shall see, to say that same-sex couples should not be (sensitively) questioned about their lifestyle but should be uncritically welcomed as full communicant members is contrary to biblical teaching. Also, prayers (formal or informal) for God to bless a relationship which is contrary to his Word is (obviously) unbiblical.

 

LIVING WITH DISAGREEMENTS

The report refers to how Paul dealt with disagreements in the Roman church (Rom 14:1-6) and comments “The striking thing is that Paul makes no attempt to resolve the difference between these groups, as though one position were right and the other wrong. Rather, he appears to recognize that certain differences among Christians may be intractable, incommensurable, irresolvable. Therefore his concern is how Christians should live with differences of principle and practice. On the one hand, he is clear that they must continue to recognize each other: they are to welcome each other, and they each belong to the same Lord. On the other hand, they must resist the strong urge, when in each other’s presence, to focus on their points of disagreement, with each trying to point out why they are right and the other is wrong (‘quarrelling over opinions’). Paul sees such behaviour as representing a fundamentally self-oriented, self-serving outlook that is incompatible with what Jesus has come for, which is to bring about a new creation in which people are fundamentally reoriented towards God and, through God, towards each other” (304).

However, Paul is dealing with disagreements over food – whether to eat everything or only vegetables – and whether to observe holy days. There is no way that this can be put on a level with disagreement over something as important as homosexual practice. Paul is certainly not tolerant towards sexual immorality.

Fortunately, the report continues: “It would be misleading to suggest that the pattern that Paul is pursuing in Romans is the only pattern in the New Testament. In fact, there are other types of disagreement whose outcome seems to be exclusion of some kind, rather than agreeing to disagree. These centre around believers persisting in behaviours that the community of faith judges to be sinful or promoting false teaching (e.g. Matthew 18.15-18; 1 Corinthians 5.4,5; 1 Corinthians 5.11-13; 1 Corinthians 6; 2 Thessalonians 3.6; Titus 3.9-11)” (305).

 

INCLUSION AND EXCLUSION

The plea of the report is, of course, that people from both sides of this debate should live together in the church in love and faith. It uses the example of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. This was, of course, based on the dispute between those saying Gentile believers must be circumcised and those who believed it was not necessary. The council agreed that circumcision was not required of gentile believers and said It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality” (Acts 15:28-29).

The report says God is at work in the life of all in the church (whatever their views of homosexual practice). So some argue that “it would be quite wrong for others to put boundaries around their participation in the life and ministry of the Church. This passage also shows how what are seen as fixed God-given boundaries (here to God’s people Israel) can be redrawn to include outsiders in a way similar to what is being proposed in affirming same-sex relationships and extending marriage to include same-sex couples” (322).

But, it adds “Others, however, have questioned whether appeals like this fail to recognize important differences. The inclusion of the Gentiles, it is argued, was promised in the Old Testament and commanded by Jesus, yet this is not true in relation to proposed changes concerning sexual ethics … although certain requirements, such as circumcision, were not required of Gentile converts to Christ, they were required to avoid sexual immorality (Acts 15.20,29). This obligation, it is claimed, would have included all forms of same-sex sexual behaviour and the various conditions set down for Gentiles may even derive from the Leviticus chapters which refer to male homosexual practice.” (322).

In February 2017 the Archbishops of Canterbury and York circulated a joint letter which said “we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church … it must be based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper twenty-first century understanding of being human and of being sexual.”

The report comments “Exclusion in the New Testament is not about policing the boundary around a community that consistently achieves and maintains some standard of excellence. Rather, exclusion is reserved for those who reject and work against the Church’s calling, and who persist in that despite all attempts to win them round (Matthew 18.15-18; 1 Corinthians 5.3-6,11-13; 2 Thessalonians 3.6; Titus 3.9-11)” (226). It then outlines the wrong and hurtful exclusion which the church has fallen into in the past (226-7).

The report refers to “various key claims on which we hope Christians across the Church of England can agree …

Every human person, regardless of their gender, sexuality, or relationship status, is created in the image of God. … God has created human beings to be wonderfully diverse. …For each of us, the discovery of our identity in Christ will involve challenge and transformation, the conviction of sin and repentance, including in relation to our attitudes and behaviour in the areas of gender, sexuality and relationships … The church’s disagreements about gender and sexuality, in particular, are disagreements between people who can share all these affirmations. They are not disagreements between those who are and those who are not convinced that their deepest identity is in Christ; or between those who take sin and the need for transformation seriously and those who do not; or those who affirm the equal dignity of all human beings and those who do not; or those who celebrate human diversity and those who do not. The disagreements are more specific than that: they are between different understandings of how human dignity can best be affirmed and what Christian discipleship and transformation demand.” (216-7).

It adds “There are deep disagreements about whether certain aspects of human experience, in the areas of gender and sexuality, are to be viewed as reflecting the goodness and God-given diversity of humans as created in God’s image, or as marks of the brokenness of that created image which God is working to restore” (217).

We must face up to the biblical teaching about separation from error in the New Testament passages mentioned above. I refer to this as:

 

THE MINISTRY OF CORRECTION

The New Testament clearly teaches what I call “The Ministry of Correction.” Jesus himself says “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.  But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

Paul tells the Corinthians not to associate with a fellow believer who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler” (1 Cor 5:11-13) and the Thessalonians to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us” (2 Thess 3:6). He tells Titus to warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them” (Titus 3:9-10).

This teaching is counter to current culture, which emphasises freedom to do one’s own thing, and the church (which often seeks popularity) tends to ignore it (unless it has to do with sexual abuse which has caused the church such bad publicity). But it is a ministry clearly called for by Jesus and Paul. The way it is carried out by the church is a matter for careful and prayerful thought, not forgetting the availability of forgiveness to the penitent and the need of love even in the midst of the godly exercise of firmness (Rom 11:22). But one thing is clear, persistent sexual behaviour which the Bible describes as sinful does require the ministry of correction which also applies to those who persist in supporting such behaviour. This correction should only be ministered by those with pastoral authority in the church and it is imperative that it is carried out in a loving manner, with the aim of restoring the person to fellowship. The New Testament clearly teaches that, to remain obedient God, the church must separate from such people until there is repentance when, of course, forgiveness is freely available.

 

THE APPEAL BY THE BISHOPS

The report “closes with an appeal from the Bishops to join them in discerning a way forward for the church that is open to new vistas on our disagreements and new perspectives on our differences.”

It states: “disagreements are to be found among us as bishops. We do not agree on a number of matters relating to identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage …. Most pressing among our differences are questions around same-sex relationships, and we recognize that here decisions in several interconnected areas need to be made with some urgency.” [422]

The associated website Living in Love and Faith next steps | The Church of England states: “The Bishops of the Church of England invite worshipping communities across the country to use the LLF resources to learn together during 2021 …. Importantly, the Bishops are themselves committed to learning using the resources and to listening to what is emerging as worshipping communities across their dioceses feed back and reflect on their learning. This will enable the whole people of God to feed into the Bishops’ discernment for the Church in 2022.”

 

CONCLUSION

If, as I believe, and the church has for nearly 2000 years, that the Bible regards homosexual practice as wrong then it is not possible for Christians who disagree with such practice to “live in love and faith” with those who support it. Of course, we must love everyone, even our enemies, but we cannot remain in fellowship with those who persist in upholding serious unbiblical errors.

 

Appendix: My attitude to homosexual people

God commands us to love our neighbour whatever his/her sexuality, race, religion, nationality or social standing. We are called to love all our neighbours equally. The Bible is clear that not to do so is a serious sin. In fact, God says that if we don’t love them, we don’t love him. We must love and respect our homosexual neighbour as a person as ourselves.

I have always sought to show love and respect for homosexuals. I have had extensive dialogue with them and two experiences confirm my respect.

I once spoke at a meeting at Birmingham University about the biblical teaching on homosexual practice. There was a demonstration against me outside the venue. I spoke and answered questions in my normal respectful way. Some of the questions were from demonstrators who had come into the meeting (wearing their campaign badges). I was very encouraged when, towards the end of the evening, one of them (whose questions I had answered) said publicly “You’re not such a bad bloke are you.” I took that as a strong approval of my respectful approach.

On another occasion I was involved in a TV debate in Norwich with a number of homosexuals. I caught the train back to London and sat with a number of them. We chatted at length and eventually one of them, who had a leading role in a gay church in London, invited me to take a Communion service at that church. I didn’t feel able to accept but that is another approval of my respectful approach to homosexuals.

However, loving our homosexual neighbour does not mean that we have to agree with him/her.  Love is consistent with respectful disagreement, which is not the same as saying it is alright to agree to disagree within the church. I believe in the biblical teaching that sex is a wonderful gift of God to be fully enjoyed within the context of heterosexual marriage. Nevertheless, I believe homosexuals should be given strong support and pastoral care to face the emotional pressures on them (including facing hateful reactions from some people).

 

 

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