What is James Jones *actually* saying?

You may have seen by now the teensy fuss that is growing over this miniscule little article in today’s Guardian:

One of the country’s most senior bishops has argued that the Bible sanctions same-sex relationships, using the bonds between Jesus and John the disciple, and David and Jonathan as examples.

The Bishop of Liverpool, the Right Rev James Jones, a conservative evangelical, expressed the views in a book, A Fallible Church, in which he apologised for objecting to the appointment of the gay cleric Dr Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading. He was one of nine bishops to sign a public letter criticising the proposed consecration.

The bishop also apologised for his conduct and its effect on John, who eventually withdrew his acceptance of the post after bowing to pressure.

Jones said: "I deeply regret this episode in our common life. I still believe it was unwise to try to take us to a place that evidently did not command the broad support of the Church of England but I am sorry for the way I opposed it and I am sorry too for adding to the pain and distress of Dr John and his partner."

He called for Anglicans to "acknowledge the authoritative biblical examples of love between two people of the same gender most notably in the relationship of Jesus and his beloved [John] and David and Jonathan".

Obviously, one or two people aren’t terribly happy about it. Michael Johnson, for example, replies:

Except that there are no "authoritative biblical examples of love between two people of the same gender" and Jones knows it.  So his theory is certainly unencumbered by evidence.  And it makes David’s encounter with Bathsheba rather difficult to understand.

Deep down, homosexuals and their supporters must be terribly unsure of themselves.  Why else would they constantly recruit dead people into their ranks?  It’s not tough to find long lists of historical figures who really were gay, you know, and everyone knows it.  This despite a complete and total lack of empircal evidence of that alleged fact.

Well yes. Quite.

Granted, I haven’t read the book, just the article, but I do wonder what it is that +Jones is actually saying. It seems that this isn’t an endorsement of gay sex per se, rather, he’s coming to the view that committed, celibate, relationships might have something going for them. That, it was claimed, was the kind of relationship that Jeffrey John had (has) with his partner and therefore since it doesn’t go against the Biblical injunction on homosexual activity, and since it mirrors some "covenantal" relationships in the Bible, I think I can see where he’s coming from on that.

Not that I agree of course.

There is a fundamental flaw in Jones’ argument and it is simply this. The Bible isn’t talking about eros and the likes of Jeffrey John are. Let me explain.

No one has any problem with the idea that there was a disciple who Jesus loved. The question is, what was that "love" that is being talked about? We can ask lots of questions about whether he was lying on Jesus or very close to Jesus, but really this has little to do with whether there was a "covenantal" relationship between them. Indeed, there is absolutely no hint of anything of the sort, simply a little bit of ambiguous Greek on the location of the lying disciple and this wonderful word – agape (or technically the indicative imperfect active 3rd person singular of the verb agape, but let’s not get picky eh?).

Agape – that’s the kind of love that Jesus had for his disciple. The word crops up again and again in the New Testament but curiously, and get this because it’s the clincher, it doesn’t mean a sexual relationship. It might appear in the context of sexual imagery (for example Ephesians 5) but normally it is used of the outpouring of self-less love. In Eph 5:2 we are commanded to live a life of agape, just as Christ agaped us. Nothing sexual in that is there? Is Paul commanding us to go out and have sexual relationships with all and sundry because that’s what Christ did? Nope – here agape is completely desexualised and rightly so. You simply can’t infer a sexual or "covenantal" relationship between Jesus and John simply on the basis of the word "agape" or on an ambiguous bit of Greek locational grammar.

What about David and Jonathan? Well the fact that Jonathan loved David doesn’t in any way imply it was sexual. "ahav" (a rough transliteration) is another generic term that doesn’t just mean partnered sexual relationships. The same word is used time and time again to talk about God’s love (Zep 3:17), friendship etc. The fact that in 2 Sam 1:26 David says that Jonathan’s love surpassed that of a woman doesn’t mean that their relationship was sexual in any way. You simply cannot surmise that from the text, there are no clues to indicate it and frankly, given that David’s sexual exploits are smeared all over Samuel 1 and 2, you would think there would be just a teensy weensy hint wouldn’t you?

No, what we have in both cases is simply friendship. Deep friendship yes, but friendship none the less. And that should be that shouldn’t it and at a cursory glance the likes of +Jones seem to be standing up and saying "But that’s all we’re asking for – to acknowledge deep friendships and convenantal relationships".

But the problem is that the relationship being presented to us to endorse isn’t one of those. It pains me to have to point to people who are alive and analyse their personal relationships, but sometimes we need to do so in order to apply biblical theology correctly. Take, for example then, the case of someone who has written and spoken on the subject of gay relationships and is an advocate of blessing such unions. When such a person enters into a Civil Partnership and lives within it as a "celibate", is that a willing Scripture driven choice to live a celibate life and to reject  the notion of homosexual activity being holy in any curcumstances? I really don’t think so. Such a relationship is driven by eros and as such doesn’t fit the David / Jonathan model. You cannot map the Jesus/John or David/Johnathan model onto that kind of relationship because that modern relationship is intrinsically sexual whereas the Biblical ones were not.

For example, if my wife and I didn’t have sex with each other for a month, would that make our relationship non-erotic? Absolutely not, for we would still be acting in a number of ways that would express the truth of our relationship. We don’t need to get naked to show we have an erotic relationship – a simple hand slid down a covered back in a certain way is enough to establish that. Are we really kidding ourselves that the relationship that doesn’t have full sexual contact but is highly sexually intimate is not erotic and therefore not one that goes where Scripture tells us not to?

Don’t get me wrong – Some people do manage to fashion a household that is two (or more) people of the same sex living together in intimate friendship, but without an erotic content. It does happen, it’s not "gay" (even if the members of it might be homosexually orientated), it’s simply friendship. It might even be "covenanted" friendship, the kind that David and Jonathan had, but it’s not erotic and neither does it pretend not to be when it is. If eroticism emerges it is brought onto the table and dealt with and handled in a mature Christian manner. That kind of household is one worth exploring and defending. Sadly though, I don’t think that’s what +Jones means (though I may be mistaken).

I have one final thing to add. The ultimate problem with an erotic (if celibate) same-sex relationship is that it places the members in a position where they cannot be used by God to signify the union of Christ and the Church (Eph 5) that some humans are called to. Husband and wife signifies Christ and the Church. Husband and husband does not (and in fact signifies God’s disinterest in humanity) and wife and wife does not (while actually signifying humanity’s rejection of God). A single person places him/herself in the position where they refuse to allow themselves to sexually express something contrary to the truth of the union of Christ with the Church. The same goes for someone who enters a specifically non-erotic same-sex friendship/covenant.

That cannot however be said for someone who enters an erotic same-sex union. The sexual connection, whether coitus or otherwise, is a deliberate rejection of the body’s design by God to signify the union of Christ and the Church, not just for the moment but for one’s whole life.

If the Bishop of Liverpool is asking us to consider seriously the Christian understanding of celibate, non-erotic same-sex friendships then more power to him (and less to the Guardian who have used his words for their own agenda). But if instead he is calling on orthodox Christians to embrace erotic same-sex activity then he is very (biblically) mistaken.

Update : Vicarious Ugleyous has a copy of the essay together with an analysis similar to mine, and you can read the Jones essay for yourself here. It appears that Jones is taking the first of my two options above, but in such a way that leaves him open to a positive interpretation by the pro-gay lobby.

8 Comments on “What is James Jones *actually* saying?

  1. Peter, I wonder why husbands and husbands cannot signify something of the relationship between Christ and his Church. In that, Christ is clearly not in a relationship with the Church in the same way that a man and woman are in relationship. My reason for saying this is that the relationship between Christ and his Church is a little ‘queer’ in that the Church (the ‘she’ of the relationship hence bride) is made up of men and women. Therefore, it seems to me that same sex relationships which challenge the heterosexual paradigm are not so dissimilar from the ‘queer’ paradigm of the bridegroom-bride relationship in that both of them play with human identity. Both of them play around with the notion that it is possible for those of the same sex to enter into some covenantal relationship with one another.

    Now, I may be accused of being too literal when it comes to my interpretation of the nature of the ‘bride of Christ’. I guess based on what I have read in your blog over the last months, this is not so necessarily problematic though. In addition, it does seem to me difficult to escape the fact that male members of the Church are called to be brides of Christ, God made fully male in Jesus – the male bit I think is important, particularly in some of the things you have said Peter.

    I somehow have this vision of the banquet of the lamb, at the end of time, where the whole of humanity, dressed in the white of brides, rise to greet their beloved, Jesus, God and man, the groom that we have so longed for.

    Just some thoughts.

    Just some thoughts.

  2. Hi Winston,

    The problem is that the Scriptures say very clearly that it is husband and wife that signify (respectively) Christ and the Church. The comparison is very clear, husband = Christ and wife = church. Now, if the passage in Ephesians 5 had intimated that the sex wasn’t important (i.e. husband OR wife could signify Christ) then I think you would have a case, but as it doesn’t you are trying to read into the text something that simply isn’t there.

  3. If you are right, it leaves us in an interesting theological position in that all male members of the Church are somehow represented to God in an image intrinsically bound up with women (the bride) and, moreover, all wives in relationship with their husbands symbolically represent these men as well.

    This is interesting in that it seems to me to be an example of biblical cross-dressing in that it is very much playing with our notions of masculinity and femininity. God is, in fact, seeing me as a male, part of the Church, in the same way that a husband sees his wife. Is this any different from the way that say a gay man sees his partner like a husband might see his wife.

    Again, I know that I am being quite literalistic here, but I think you so tie up the earthly and heavenly covenants and they way that they mirror one another, that I think it is worth teasing them fully open to see what their likeness is.

  4. Winston,

    I’m not quite sure that transvestitism (physical or spiritual) is what this is about. Yes, wives do symbolise the church, but it is the union of Christ and the Church that is the key point in the signification here, not the fact that wives represent men and women in a gender defying manner.

    I think it’s important to also point out two things:

    i) It’s not ALL men who symbolise Christ, rather it’s husbands who do, but not in a way that is “superior” to unmarried men. Indeed, one might argue that it is the potentiality of men to be husbands that signifies the Christ side of the union.
    ii) Wives don’t per se represent men and women, rather they represent the Church as a whole.

    Interestingly, it is this understanding of Ephesians 5 that has led me to a far more catholic view of the representation of Christ at the altar during the Eucharist. As I am now seeing it, a woman simply cannot represent Christ at the table of bread and wine, not because she is inferior to a man but rather that she simply has not been created to do so (in the same way that an apple cannot produce oranges from its seeds).

  5. Try as many might, I still don’t see how one can use any sort of meaningful biblical exegesis to justify same-sex sexual relationships. I think the only way is to take the position that the Bible and tradition are significantly flawed on this and (therefore) on many other points, including the idea of the Trinity.

    Clearly, John Spong’s type of thinking is far more tenable than any attempt to attach a special sexuality waiver onto orthodox Christianity.

  6. Interesting comments, and I go along with mose of what you say, Peter; however, I question the use of Ephesians 5 regarding the argument for men-only presiding at Eucharist. The proper reformed position is that Christ Himself presides at the Eucharist, not the priest / minister. We do not symbolise His presence, but participate with the whole Church in receiving the bread and wine from the hands of our Lord.

  7. Mike,

    The question then arises as to why we have ordained people presiding and we then get into issues of representation of the gathered church in the president, ending up at the same place (methinks).

  8. Imagery is precisely that – imagery. Trying to systematize it in order to bolster up our theories is simply otiose, although it can become an absorbing game, no doubt, for some.

    I think that the vast majority of straight couples value their relationship precisely for what it is, without frigging around and tying themselves in knots over what it does/doesn’t/can/can’t symbolize, and gay couples should, in my view, do likewise.

    By the way, Peter, since you say that you’ve come to “a far more catholic view of the representation of Christ at the altar during the Eucharist”, and that you now believe that “a woman simply cannot represent Christ at the table of bread and wine”, I hope you’re not forgetting that, according to the official teaching of the Catholic magisterium, you simply cannot do this either, since your priestly orders are “absolutely null and utterly void” (Apostolicae Curae, 1896). Although many individual Catholics dissent from it, Leo XIII’s bull has never been rescinded.

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