The URC, sexual ethics and the authority of the Bible: some thoughts

The debate about the URC’s attitude to civil partnerships rumbles on. I observe its expression in the social media but I’m sure it’s more active and probably less temperate in other (“real world”) contexts. I’ve had a go at articulating my own position (most recently here) but I’m more interested today in looking at some assumptions being made and arguments being put by others. In the past I’ve most often posted about my differences from the advocates of “gay marriage” (e.g. here). Now though I want to examine the problems I perceive in the lines of argument developed by those who believe we are instructed by the Bible to abhor same-sex relationships and conduct.

The main line they develop (as I understand it) says:

  • the Bible is the revealed word of God
  • this implies that where there are clear instructions they apply to us
  • there are clear instructions regarding same-sex behaviours
  • therefore we are instructed to abhor and forbid these behaviours and not to tolerate or approve them

To be clear I am preparing soon to take the ordination vows specified by the URC’s Basis of Union. I believe that I can do so in good conscience. This means that I accept (wholeheartedly) the proposition that I “believe that the Word of God in the Old and New Testaments, discerned under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is the supreme authority for the faith and conduct of God’s people”. I really do accept that: the Biblical texts are our supreme authority. What I’m interested in here is how that authority makes itself felt.

This means that I (almost) accept the first of the four propositions above. The Bible certainly reveals the Word of God to us in a way unique and supremely authoritative and this is not my focus in this post.

Where I start to dissent from the line of argument summarise above is with its second point. I am absolutely convinced that there is no-one involved in this debate who actually believes this point as it is stated. Take Jesus’ instruction to the rich young man in Mark 10.21: “sell all that you have and give to the poor”. Jesus does not qualify this instruction or give conditions under which it applies. Does it therefore apply to us?

It is relatively easy (and quite correct) to deflect this point by pointing out that it is given to a particular individual and therefore can be taken to apply only to him. This seems sensible to me. But what we have here is an argument (stated or unstated) that a clear instruction from Jesus himself can be ignored by most of us in terms of actual conduct. We interpret it by working out some more general underlying tendency.

Another notorious example is the letter to Philemon in which Paul sends a slave back to his master and the 1 Cor 7 where Paul seems to instruct slaves to remain in slavery. Here we seem to have explicit support for this institution, or at least an acceptance of it by Paul. Does this apply to any unfortunate person today who finds themselves enslaved? I suspect we would say not, invoking differences in the nature of the institution and the surrounding social context.

Or what about the other admonitions in 1 Cor 7 regarding marriage. In verses 26 and 27 Paul advises those not married to remain unmarried “in view of the impending (or current) crisis”. Do we take this to mean that we should attempt to dissuade any who come to us to discuss getting married? I don’t think many of our ministers would take this line (although I might suspect they should that’s another story).

My point is that even in the gospels and epistles we apply some discernment to our decisions about which clear instructions are directly binding and which need work to apply to our lives. In the examples I’ve cited I don’t think we would differ much (except in the last case where I’m aware my view is not widely shared).

So there must be something special about the instructions on same-sex behaviour that marks them out from those that we feel we can see as not applying directly to us. I’ve yet to see or hear a very clear and explicit statement of what this feature is but I think I have heard enough to have a go at setting it out. I’d be more than delighted to have this clarified by anyone who wants to.

Critical to this is the relation of the new covenant to the old, especially as regards law. Binding rules about how to behave are a prominent feature of the old covenant(s). The OT rules on sexual behaviour (which are, I think, the basis for Paul’s attitudes to homosexuality) form part of this divinely given law. When Jesus frees us from the law he does not put an end to all aspects of these rules. In particular a distinction is made between “cultic” and “moral” rules.

What is put an end to are those things which form the boundary between the chosen people and the rest of humanity (e.g. circumcision and the dietary rules) and anything relating to sacrifice (which is fulfilled and completed on the cross). The rest, “ethical” rules, remain in force. Stealing, murder, injustice and sexual immorality remain forbidden. It is this that Paul is showing us when he writes the passages in question.

Clearly there is something in this. “Antinomian” rejections of any limit to acceptable conduct is not a position that attracts a lot of support in the URC as far as I know. I think that some of those upset by our GA decision suspect the denomination of embracing slow-motion antinomianism, which will eventually lead to complete license. I think they’re wrong. If anything my complaint would be the opposite, but again that’s another story.

However I would suggest that this division of cultic and ethical admonitions is itself a matter of judgement and that Paul himself affirms this for us. A passage that means an enormous amount to me is 1 Cor 8-9. Paul is clear that ethical and cultic behaviour cannot clearly be distinguished and that the key thing is to do nothing that prevents others coming to Christ. We need to see that this is Paul’s own practice. His letters are tools for obeying Christ’s call to him to be the apostle to the gentiles.

We can disagree about the matter at hand but all involved should be submitting themselves to the rule of love in respect the their fellow Christians and remembering both that they are making judgements about the texts and that those who disagree with them are also, as they see it, discerning in the Spirit.

  1. Jengie said:

    Have you read the report on Biblical Authority from around fifteen years back? It was done earlier in the debate, it was at the request of assembly and it including some of strongest theologians. I believe Colin Gunton was in the group.

    • I have read it (it’s available online as part of the 1999 Human Sexuality Report). There are some good things in it, especially its excellent discussion of why we should prioritise unity over any partial truths we believe ourselves to perceive. Its notion of “hermeneutic frameworks” is also quite a useful way to orient oneself in the argument. What it does not do, however, is face squarely the bias to celibacy in the NT, nor does it give any very sustained attention to the relation between NT and OT.

  2. I always remember a phrase used by Jimmy Wood who was head of our College in Edinburgh when I trained. He thought of the Bible as the ‘literary precipitate’ of the activity of the Logos. With my background, I have always found this useful. The truth is God’s Word – the Bible is the expression of that word recorded [and translated] through human means. Whilst maybe not theologically 100% accurate, I find it helpful nevertheless.

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