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15 January 2013

Homosexuality & hermeneutics: creating counter-cultural communities

Homosexuality & hermeneutics: creating counter-cultural communities

by Steve Holmes

I respect and admire Steve Chalke, and have enjoyed working with him from time to time over the years. People in my extended family were converted to Christianity through Steve's youth evangelism back in the 1980s. I know many who had their first taste of Christian leadership, and were formed well, through the youth worker training he developed with Oasis. As his interests turned more to education and to justice, I know people whose lives were changed through opportunities to serve that were offered by Oasis; I have long been a personal supporter of the Stop the Traffik campaign that Steve founded...

... paragraphs like that usually end with a 'but'. I don't want to end with a 'but'; I respect and admire Steve, and have done so for years; of course, that doesn't mean I have always agreed with everything he has said or done. I have never doubted, however, that he was and is someone trying to follow Jesus and to serve the Church and the world to the best of his understanding and abilities. And I certainly do not doubt that now.

There is much to applaud in Steve's article in the current issue of Christianity magazine on the churches' pastoral response to gay and lesbian people. He names the right problem - that British churches have, generally, been very poor at offering pastoral care to LGBTQIA people;[1] he looks to the right place for answers - scripture, and particularly the question of hermeneutics; he identifies the question of our understanding of 'inclusion' as a crucial one; and he opens the dialogue in a respectful way, and calls for "compassionate, respectful, and honest conversation". For all of this - and more - I am grateful.

If we are going to have this debate, this is a good place to start it.

I have been asked to provide a response on the particular issue of hermeneutics, although inevitably such a response will stray into these other areas. I want to say before turning to that issue however that I agree profoundly with Steve in his concern that our pastoral practice in this area has often been appalling, and needs to change. The Church is failing fundamentally in its mission if it is not a place in which all people can find an unconditional welcome, and a nurturing community that challenges and encourages them to grow in grace and holiness. As will become clear in this paper, I think Steve's proposed changes fail to be radical enough, biblical enough, or inclusive enough, but his diagnosis of a real and urgent problem is spot on.

Steve asserts that he wants his understanding to be conditioned by the Bible: "I have formed my view," he writes, "not out of any disregard for the Bible's authority, but by way of grappling with it and, through prayerful reflection, seeking to take it seriously." That said, the 'authority' of the Bible, while it is something all British evangelicals believe in,[2] can be understood in different ways, and Steve is right to say that the way we read the Bible will be conditioned by our understanding of what the Bible is.

So what is the Bible?

Drawing on Karl Kuhn, Steve offers a model of the Bible as "an account of the ancient conversation initiated, inspired and guided by God with and among humanity". I confess that I struggle a little with this: on the one hand, I am not sure how a 'conversation' can in fact carry authority. On the other, the model of 'conversation' does not seem to me to fit either the nature of the biblical text (which has more poetry or extended narrative than conversation), or the Bible's self-presentation of its nature. If I had to work in the sorts of paradigms that Kuhn uses, I would be happier to say that we have in scripture an authoritative and accurate record of God's interventions by word and deed into particular historical circumstances.[3]

Perhaps because of this, I would also want to make much more use than Steve does of the 'big story' of the Bible, and of the discipline of biblical theology - understanding texts and themes by paying extensive attention to the breadth of the biblical witness. What is the 'big story'? Like any good story, it is complex, and weaves many themes together, so let me offer three complementary narratives, all well-known:

  1. The Bible tells a narrative of the marring of God's perfect creation by human sin, and of God's response to that, motivated by His determination never to let go of that which He has formed and loved, and centred in Christ. This story is sometimes summed up as 'Creation; Fall, Redemption; Consummation'.
  2. My colleague Tom Wright once offered a three-term summary, which Steve himself popularised in the memorable slogan: "One God; one people; one hope."
  3. The Bible tells a big story of God calling together a community through which He will bring and extend the Kingdom of His Son until all things are under Jesus' rule.

Why does this matter? Well, let me take one phrase that Steve cites as an example of how appallingly the churches have treated LGBTQIA people: "objectively disordered". This has become a famous phrase because it is used in the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church to describe (what the Catechism calls) "homosexual inclination".[4] What is wrong with the phrase? It seems to me, if we take the big story of creation-fall-redemption-consummation seriously, the problem is not using it of gay men and lesbians, but using it only of them. All people are fallen and multiply broken; all our desires are warped and twisted out of their proper shape; my sexuality is objectively disordered, and - I trust and pray - being reordered by God's Spirit at work in my life.

This story of warped desires being disciplined and re-ordered seems to me to be somewhere near the heart of a biblical theology of sexuality. The breaking of the proper relationship of mutual love and companionship between husband and wife is explicitly cited as a result of the Fall (Genesis 3:16); after this, while the remnants of God's good gift of sexuality will occasionally be celebrated (as in the Song of Songs), the broader biblical witness is more about difficult and demanding sexual disciplines. When Jesus commends faithful monogamous marriage, his disciples are simply incredulous - this calling is impossible! (Matthew 19:10); when Paul gives advice about marriage and singleness, it is not about fulfillment, but about the disciplining of desires (1 Corinthians 7:1-9); ... In later Christian tradition, marriage was understood as an ascetic practice, a way of training oneself to be fit for heaven.[5]

Again, if we take seriously the big story of God calling together a community to extend the Kingdom of His Son, one theme we notice is the regular use of the marriage relationship as an image for God's relationship with Israel, and Jesus' relationship with the Church (there are many examples, but see e.g. Ephesians 5:21ff.) If we are to adequately understand the biblical teaching on sexuality and marriage - and the two are intimately bound together in scripture - we need to think hard about what this imagery says to us.

One final theme: the community of God is at the heart of the big story of the Bible as I read it, and we need to take that very seriously. The Church - which means each particular local church - is to be the radical community of love and commitment that witnesses to the world about the unconditional love of God for broken sinners. One aspect of this strikes me as very significant for the pastoral issues that Steve, very properly, raises: the New Testament witness is that the Church - each local church - should be the community in which we find our needs for intimate human relationship met. (See, e.g. Mark 10:29-30, where the Church is to be the community where the disciple finds a hundred "brothers and sisters and mothers".

One of the reasons same-sex relationships have become such an issue for modern Western cultures is we have located the answer to loneliness and the source of intimacy solely in our families (this is very unusual in historical terms). The person who, for reasons of sexual orientation, is denied the opportunity to form a family (and, as Steve notes, is possibly disowned by his/her birth family) is thus cast into an astonishingly tragic, indeed impossible, situation. But one glance at divorce statistics, or one month of pastoral experience, will tell us that our cultural solution does not work; and it is certainly unbiblical. People do not find adequate intimacy in forming couples, even if the relationship is blessed. I would like to gently challenge Steve that the first answer to the terrible pastoral issues he raises is for local ministers like him to give themselves to creating radically biblical and inclusive church communities where everyone who comes will truly find a hundred brothers and sisters and mothers...[6]

So big themes of biblical theology change significantly the way we think about these issues, and there are decisions to be made about how we read the broad sweep of the Bible which will affect - determine, even - our reading of individual texts.

When we turn to the particular question of hermeneutics, Steve suggests a form of 'trajectory' hermeneutics where themes develop within scripture, and the task of readers is to continue to develop those trajectories. He offers standard examples of slavery and female church leaders, and then suggests that gay relationships should be treated the same way. I have several problems with this, one that I am not sure the basic hermeneutical strategy is a good one, and others to do with how it is applied.

Starting with the application, I think Steve seriously underestimates the difficulty of applying a 'trajectory' programme here. The cases are not analogous, for reasons that have been very-well rehearsed: the biblical witness on slavery and on female leadership is visibly ambiguous (Steve himself cites the examples of Junia and Phoebe); there is no such ambiguity in the witness to sexual ethics - indeed, if anything it gets more hardline in the New Testament than it was before ("Moses gave you permission because your hearts were hard...")

Second, and still on the application of trajectory hermeneutics, as Steve notes, the ancient world knew nothing of faithful, committed, unique gay/lesbian relationships; I may be missing something here, but it seems to me difficult to trace a trajectory in scripture on a topic scripture says nothing about...

Third, Steve cites William Webb's book, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (IVP, 2001) (in his note 20), but notes that Webb does not find a trajectory application to the issue of sexuality plausible. Webb - a New Testament scholar - in fact offers nearly 200 pages of readings of biblical texts to construct about 20 separate arguments as to why this does not work. Of course, Steve could not explain why he differs from Webb on every point in a magazine article, but for him to dismiss all this work without any indication of how he comes to the opposite conclusion from someone who he is upholding as a model for his hermeneutics makes it hard for me to understand how he has reached the position he has.

Fourth, as I noted, I do not find the use of a 'trajectory' hermeneutic persuasive personally, for reasons that I hope Steve might agree with. The idea that we move ever onward and upward is pervasive in Western culture (it is a great 19th-century theme, applied powerfully by Hegel, Marx, and Darwin; that one of these happened to be right does not change my point), and so 'trajectories' sound very good to us - but biblical history has a different shape. Steve comments: "Christianity is not about a book, but about a person who is the Word of God made flesh", and it is precisely because of this that I am very uncomfortable with trajectory hermeneutics. Our understanding of the truth does not grow and develop and improve beyond the point in history when we once looked the Truth in the face; we do not know more of the works of God than when we saw God at work in the dusty streets of Galilee.

Biblical truth is always culturally-located, and there is an important hermeneutical task of discovering what the unchanging ways of God look like in a different culture. For me, however, this is a task of translation, not of finding trajectories.

***

As I said at the start, there is much to applaud in Steve's article. He courageously and clearly names a pastoral scandal that we have swept under the carpet for too long, and honestly and openly explores a possible solution that he has found. For several reasons, some of which I have outlined here, I think Steve's proposed solution is not the right one - I do not think it can be justified biblically, and I do not think it will work. I am prepared to listen to counter-arguments on each of these points, of course, and to change my mind if convinced.[7]

The urgency here, though, is not in getting our theoretical ethics right; it is learning to love people we, as evangelical Christians, have too often failed to love - and indeed seeking forgiveness from people we have wounded. My most passionate prayer for the discussion Steve has begun is not that we agree on my conclusions, or his, or anyone else's, but that we might together find ways to make our churches counter-cultural communities of love where every person may find true human intimacy and God's healing grace.[8]

Steve Holmes is a Baptist minister and senior lecturer in Theology at St Andrews University. He is chair of the Evangelical Alliance's Theology and Public Policy Advisory Committee.



[1] 'Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, Queer [or Questioning], Intersex, Asexual [or Ally]'

[2] I have shown that - in contrast to the American confession of inerrancy - 'authority' is used in almost every British evangelical doctrinal statement of the past 150 years, often alongside other terms, in my Laing Lecture. Stephen R. Holmes, 'Evangelical Doctrines of Scripture in Transatlantic Perspective' Evangelical Quarterly, LXXXI (2009), pp. 38-63.

[3] I am generally more comfortable with theological definitions such as 'the Word of God' (I suppose just because I am a theologian by training, and not a Biblical Studies expert), but these can happily sit alongside the more phenomenological descriptors that Kuhn invites us to explore.

[4] 'The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.' (Para. 2358)

[5] Eugene Rogers, Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their way into the Triune God (Blackwell, 1999) explores this helpfully, and then argues that the church should marry gay and lesbian couples so that their desires may also be adequately disciplined.

[6] I further reflect that talking about 'the gift of celibacy' in the absence of communities like this is irrelevant and possibly offensive.

[7] In addition to some books named above, the Evangelical Alliance publication Biblical and Pastoral Responses to Homosexuality is an excellent guide to the debate, with remarkably full information on other publications. Oliver O'Donovan is one of the leading theological ethicists in the world, and a British evangelical; his A Conversation Waiting to Begin (SCM, 2009)is specifically directed at the debate in the Anglican communion, but well worth reading.

[8] Andrew Marin's Love is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community (IVP, 2009) is a remarkable testimony to some ways in which this transformation might begin to happen; Wesley Hill's Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Zondervan, 2010) is a powerful combination of autobiography and theological reflection that also offers some helpful directions in this area.