Responding to “The Church and Homosexuality”

I thought it might be suitable to address the main point of Jeffrey John’s position as outlined in his paper, “The Church and Homosexuality” which was first published in 1998.  In some senses this is a better paper then the subsequent “Permanent, Faithful, Stable” as it explores clearly the notion of how the Ephesians 5 model of marriage signifies the union of Christ and the Church. Dr John’s proposition is that it is not the sex of the participants in the covenanted union that is important to the signification of the work of Christ, but rather simply the presence of the monogamous covenant. I want to explore that proposition and see whether it sits happily with the Biblical text.

The relevant section of the paper is as follows.

The point I had hoped to make at Canterbury was, precisely, that contrary to the usual assumption, gay relationships do not overturn either scripture or tradition, but can be compatible with their deepest wisdom and discipline. I wanted to say that in terms of the kind of development which it implies within the tradition, accepting same sex partnerships is exactly analogous to ordaining women. It looks like a revolutionary step, but is nothing of the kind. Accepting same sex relationships does not change the Church’s doctrine or discipline of marriage, it simply applies it to a different group of people. The sacramental theology is the same. Provided it is based on the same quality of love and commitment, provided it creates for two adults the same covenant framework for life and growth, it will be equally in the image of God’s covenanted love, and will be morally indistinguishable from a childless marriage.

The Church took the decision to ordain women once it had realized that doing so does nothing to alter the sacrament of orders. It does not change the doctrine of the priesthood or the sacramental relations which ordination sets up, it simply admits a different category of person into those relations. Sacramentally nothing has changed, because the imaging of Christ in the priesthood does not relate to the physical gender of the priest but to her person. ln the same way the sacramental imaging of Christ in a same-sex relationship does not relate to the couple’s gender but to their personal covenant. What St Paul calls the musterion, the ‘mystery’ or sacrament, relates to the way that a sexual relationship based on a covenant of total commitment potentially reflects Christ’s covenanted, faithful love for his Church. It is not the male-female polarity that creates the ‘mystery’, nor anything to do with procreativity (otherwise we would not marry the infertile). It is the quality of the commitment between two persons, the combined direction of love and will, which is the heart of Christian sexual ethics. Such a relationship is sacramental precisely because, however imperfectly, it makes God’s own reliable, unswerving, self-sacrificing kind of love a visible reality in human life. And that is not just a matter of theological theory, but of experience. Countless Christian gay couples have found that ‘mystery’ to be just as true of their own relationship as it is of heterosexual marriage; and it is an experience that demands to be respected.

The scriptural arguments around gay relationships also run parallel to the scriptural arguments around the ordination of women. Both issues relate to creation ordinances, and especially to particular Pauline passages which seem to rule out both homosexual practice and female leadership on the basis of those ordinances. But of course everything depends on the hermeneutic you apply. A literal exegesis will no doubt rule out same-sex relationships, but it would equally rule out giving any authority to women (let alone ordaining them). Even more strongly, not just on the basis of Paul’s teaching, but on the basis of Jesus’ own teaching in four separate Gospel passages as well as in Paul, it would rule out the remarriage of divorcees as being equivalent to adultery. I suppose one might just about respect those who reject gay relationships on the basis of scripture, provided they also veil women, forbid them to speak in-church, and condemn the remarried as adulterers. But on these other things we are not, thank God a literalist Church; and there is no intellectual honesty at all in applying a literalist hermeneutic to the gay issue and quite a different one to these others.

Jeffrey John’s argument can be summarised as follows:

  1. Human covenanted relationships are shown in Scripture to resemble the union of Christ and the Church
  2. This “mystery” is not due to the sex of those in the union, but rather the presence of a personal covenant
  3. On this basis gay relationships which are monogamous, covenanted and life-long are as holy as similar straight relationships.

Dr John links this argument with the case for ordaining women, but it should be noted that at this point the argument moves from the specific theology of the issues (gay relationships and ordaining women) to the process by which such theology is discerned. It should be pointed out that supporting one of these revisions in the life of the church should not necessarily lead to the support of the other. It may be that the exegetical process that is used to approach both issues is identical, but leads to different conclusions.

It is not my intention in this post to look at the issue of women’s ordination. Rather, I want to explore the argument that Dr John makes about covenanted relationships and see whether it is supported by the text of the Scriptures that are referred to.

Changing the Doctrine of Marriage

Dr John makes it very clear that he does not believe accepting the validity of covenanted gay relationships will undermine the Christian understanding of marriage.

Accepting same sex relationships does not change the Church’s doctrine or discipline of marriage, it simply applies it to a different group of people. The sacramental theology is the same. Provided it is based on the same quality of love and commitment, provided it creates for two adults the same covenant framework for life and growth, it will be equally in the image of God’s covenanted love, and will be morally indistinguishable from a childless marriage.

I want to suggest that contrary to Dr John’s assertion, what he is proposing is a revision to the Church’s doctrine of marriage in a manner that renders what we have done for the past 350 years “wrong”. I addressed this issue when examining the liturgy used by Martin Dudley two years ago. Let’s have a look again at the issues involved.

The Sexual Theology of the BCP Marriage Service

We now turn to examine the sexual theology of the BCP Marriage Service. In the opening charge to the couple and the congregation, the Priest says the following:

holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocence, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church;

This is a clear reference to Ephesians 5, where Paul writes the following:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.

Paul takes the institution of marriage in Genesis 2 and explains how the union of husband and wife signifies more than just the coming together of two humans. He teaches that within marriage the husband and the wife take on unique roles in the way that they together sexually signify Christ and his Church. Within marriage Paul argues, the husband signifies Christ. That is why he is first called to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He must give up all things for her in the same way that Christ gave up all things for his bride. The bride then serves her husband on the same grounds that the church serves Christ, not because of any patriarchal power structure but because the church understands that Christ has laid down everything for her.

The BCP marriage service echoes this understanding for it first calls on the husband in this manner:

Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her in sickness and in health;

Here the primary call to the husband is to love, but when the wife is addressed the charge is different:

Wilt thou obey him, and serve him, love, honour, and keep him in sickness and in health;

The distinction in the charges points to the Ephesians 5 teaching that the wife submitting to her husband, on the basis that he loves her by laying down all things for her, is a mirror of the church’s relationship to Christ.

This understanding leads Paul to the realisation that the consummation of the marriage creates a mysterious holy union between husband and wife that mirrors the union of Christ and the Church. The sexual bonding of the two as “one flesh” is not just a physical act but a spiritual one, for it has a deep signification in its activity. To put it as unsubtly as one can, the act of a husband and wife achieving orgasm together is not just an indication of their physical oneness but points beyond them to the work of the cross in uniting fallen humanity to a holy God through the shed blood of the Son.

Within this signification, the uniqueness of the partners is key. The sexual difference of the man and his wife are the driving force behind the symbolism. It is their biological difference and the union of those differences that is the indicator of the greater union of Christ and the Church.

To summarise, the BCP Marriage Service explicitly draws from Ephesians 5 and in doing so distinguishes between husband and wife in their unique roles in signifying the union of Christ and the Church. The sexual imagery is deliberate and points to a higher truth beyond the married couple. It is an understanding of sexual activity that has dictated the Church’s response to all other forms of copulation and was still part of the guiding theology in the 1990s revision of the Marriage Service.

Now Dr John clearly refers to Ephesians 5 in his use of the language of mystery. Dr John’s interpretation differs from the BCP in that he understands that the Pauline reference to the mystery of two becoming one flesh symbolising the union of Christ and the Church is not specifically to do with the sex of the participants in the one flesh union, but rather the presence of the covenant between the two.

The sacramental theology is the same. Provided it is based on the same quality of love and commitment, provided it creates for two adults the same covenant framework for life and growth, it will be equally in the image of God’s covenanted love, and will be morally indistinguishable from a childless marriage.

I want to suggest that if Dr John’s reading of Ephesians 5 is correct, that it is to do with the same quality of love and the same covenant framework for gay unions and for straight unions, then the conservative argument is redundant and we would rightly need to revise our liturgy.

What is Happening in Ephesians 5?

It is necessary to explore in greater detail the symbolism in Ephesians 5 and in particular to explore what Ephesians 5 is saying about the work of Christ.  The section from verse 25 onwards is as much Christological as it is a guidance for mutual submission within marriage.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.

The teaching here is clear – Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, sanctified her and cleansed her. I’m sure that Dr John disagrees with none of this, but where he differs from the interpretation of the BCP is that he suggests that the way that Ephesians 5 explicitly links the husband to Christ and the wife to the Church is not a clear instruction that the symbolising of the covenant relationship between Christ and the Church has to be heterosexual.

In the same way the sacramental imaging of Christ in a same-sex relationship does not relate to the couple’s gender but to their personal covenant.

But what is the nature of the covenant between Christ and the Church symbolises? Are Christ and the Church equal or is there differentiation in their participation in the covenant. A cursory glance at Ephesians 5 demonstrates that Christ and the Church undertake very differing roles in their covenant union.

Verse Christ Church
23 Head of the Church
Saviour of the Church
Christ’s body
24 Submits to Christ
25 Loves the Church
Gives himself up for the Church
26 Sanctifies the Church
Cleanses the Church
27 Presents the Church to himself

Once the passage is laid out in such a manner it becomes very clear that the theology of the work of Christ in this section of Paul is carefully developed and then mapped back onto the specifics of husband and wife. In verse 23 he writes that “the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the Church”. There is a clear mapping of roles based on sexual identity and the text is unambiguous as to which partner represents either Christ or the Church. If one is to accept this defined mapping of signification based on sex then the objection to a same-sex union becomes clear – how can male/male represent Christ and the Church? Either one is left with a “church/church” signification, or in order to defend the clear teaching that one of the partners represents Christ and the other the Church (for that is the covenant being signified by marriage), one needs to suggest which of the two men is taking the role of the “wife”.

I believe that if Dr John and those who commend his work wish to defend their support of same-sex relationships from Ephesians 5 they need to overcome this hurdle. Of course, one defence of this reading is already presented by Dr John, and it is to that that I now turn.

Literal or not?

Dr John’s argument proceeds upon the following line – that we no longer read the Bible literally in two specific cases (ordaining women and divorce) and that therefore we do not need to do so with Ephesians 5. This is a good argument and Dr John presents it coherently, if at times provocatively.

The scriptural arguments around gay relationships also run parallel to the scriptural arguments around the ordination of women. Both issues relate to creation ordinances, and especially to particular Pauline passages which seem to rule out both homosexual practice and female leadership on the basis of those ordinances. But of course everything depends on the hermeneutic you apply. A literal exegesis will no doubt rule out same-sex relationships, but it would equally rule out giving any authority to women (let alone ordaining them). Even more strongly, not just on the basis of Paul’s teaching, but on the basis of Jesus’ own teaching in four separate Gospel passages as well as in Paul, it would rule out the remarriage of divorcees as being equivalent to adultery … there is no intellectual honesty at all in applying a literalist hermeneutic to the gay issue and quite a different one to these others.

I want to suggest though that the answer to Dr John lies in the very words that are highlighted above. He suggests that the move to ordain women and allow the remarriage of divorcees stems from a non reading of the Scriptures in a literal form. However, unlike those that seek revisionism on the basis that the Scriptures are documents that reflect the misogynist or heterosexualist culture of their time (and it’s of note that Dr John certainly doesn’t descend to the simplistic “they didn’t know about committed gay relationships in those times” argument which has to demolish the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture in order to work), those evangelicals who support ordaining women and remarrying divorcees do so exactly because they apply a literalist hermeneutic to the text.

For example, when examining the injunction in 1 Timothy 2 on women teaching, the Evangelical response that this is not a universal command is based in a literal reading of the text and an understanding of the culture in Ephesus. It is a literalist hermeneutic that leads one to understand that the passage is dealing specifically with a cult of Eve and is handling issues around that particular Gnosticism. In this case a literal exegesis leads exactly to the position that women may teach in the church, but in this case they (and equally men) should not be permitted to simply spread heresy through the congregation. Moreover, evangelical arguments on the suitability of women to lead churches do so not on the basis of assuming that the Bible is a patriarchal document who’s views can be amended for the 21st Century. Rather, they are based around grappling with what words like “kephale” actually mean. These arguments are driven by a literal hermeneutic.

Equally when exploring what Jesus says about divorce it is a literalist hermeneutic understanding the 1st century culture that leads one to understand that Jesus is clearly referring to the practice of divorcing a wife because you had spotted a different woman who you preferred. Even today, I would find it hard to find a priest who, whilst happy to remarry divorcees in certain circumstances, would be prepared to remarry someone when one of the two potential spouses presented to him was adulterous with the other, causing the original marriage to break up.

In fact, if one wants to go back to the Old Testament, some of the marriage laws to which Jesus is referring are found in Exodus 21. We see in Torah several examples of what is expected in marriage and what can happen if these obligations are not fulfilled. For example, in Exodus 21:10-11 a wife can leave her husband if he marries someone else (adultery) or does not provide her with food, clothing or sex! In each of these cases the marriage covenant is broken and the obligations to stay are also broken. That is an understanding which comes from a literal reading of the text.

When we examine what Jesus says on the subject, he addresses primarily the practice of simply handing a wife a certificate of divorce to get rid of her, and he says that that is as good as making your wife an adulteress. The model we then get is not that divorce cannot happen (as Torah clearly says it can) but rather that one cannot simply divorce for the sake of it (a “no fault” divorce). Divorce in Scripture happens when the covenant between a husband a wife is broken. God hates it because he has designed marriage of a man to a woman to signify the union of Christ and the Church, and when such a signifying union breaks down it damages that sacramental signification. This is an argument based not in rejecting the Scripture as a product of its time, but rather taking it seriously as a text and seeing what it is actually saying (and equally is not saying).

Blessing Same-Sex Unions?

If those who support the same argument as Dr John outlines wish to convince the church that it should alter its doctrine of marriage to allow same-sex couples to be blessed, there needs to be further engagement with the Ephesians 5 model of marriage that clearly requires a sexual distinctiveness between the sexes. It is not good enough just to argue that Evangelicals ignore the plain reading of Scripture in other places. To the contrary, where Evangelicals have adopted polices that permit women to teach or for people to be remarried after divorce (or famously on the abolition of slavery), they have done so because of the clear teaching of the words of the Bible, not in spite of them.

In contrast, the argument that Dr John presents for permitting the blessing of same-sex unions is based on rejecting the plain meaning of the text and instead applying the theology of a specific relationship (that of a husband and wife) to another situation that the rest of Scripture clearly argues is not holy.  The rationale used to support such a move (that the Church has revised its view of the Bible over the past decades, ignoring the plain teaching of the text) is shown to be incorrect, for where a revision in doctrine has been made (i.e. divorce or women teaching), it has been done so through a clear engagement with the literal meaning of the text. Even where there is still great controversy (eg women’s leadership), the hermeneutic argument is focussed around a literal engagement with the text (the meaning of kephale) and not simply a rejection of the Bible on the basis of its age or cultural setting.

Unfortunately Dr John’s arguments do not do this. They are not in the clear path of valid development in tradition by re-engaging in each generation with the literal text. Rather, they are a noble but flawed attempt to impose upon a passage in Scripture a meaning that it clearly does not teach. This attempt by Dr John to support same-sex relationships advocates very clearly a change to the fundamental meaning of marriage as the Church of England has understood it for over 350 years, namely that the union of specifically a man and a woman signifies the covenant of Christ to his church. To have any validity, such a position as that which Dr John puts forward must be developed much further, and engage with the Biblical text much more faithfully, before it will be taken seriously by those who stand in the mainstream of the Anglican tradition.

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