Failing to be “Biblical”: reflections on Church of Scotland sexuality debates

general-assemblyHaving followed the Kirk’s debates on ordination of homosexuals (slightly at a distance) and having studied in some depth (for an MTh dissertation) the very similar discussion in my own denomination (the URC) some features of the discussion strike me forcefully:

  • I find myself in agreement with the “revisionists” on the substantive issue of whether people of homosexual orientation can be ordained without the imposition on them of celibacy
  • I find the arguments on the other (“traditionalist”) side to be far more consistent and compelling than those on the side I agree with (although I think they are also very thin and unconvincing)

Why are the arguments of the “revisionists” so very poor?

In general they neither argue clearly that there is a source of authoritative moral guidance outside the Bible nor attempt to show that the moral teaching of the Bible does not condemn homosexual practice. They HAVE to do one of these two things to have any counter to the very clear and simple position of their opponents:

  • the Bible is the highest moral authority
  • it says, in the New Testament, that homosexuality is unacceptable
  • therefore homosexuality is unacceptable

To avoid this being an unavoidable consequence one would have to show that one of the two premises is wrong. On the whole the revisionists do not even attempt this.

They find it hard to argue against the moral authority of the Bible, since to do so would fatally undermine their own position.

They sometimes attempt to deny the second proposition by arguing that what is denounced in the Pauline writings is not homosexuality as we now understand it, but this becomes highly technical and does not carry any great rhetorical force.

What they mostly do is develop a parallel argument:

  • the Bible says that love is the highest value
  • homosexual practice is an expression of love
  • it is not loving to denounce people
  • therefore we should not denounce homosexual practice

This line of argument is not without merit, especially where one actually knows particular homosexual Christians, but it does not have the clarity and rigour of the traditionalist argument, nor does it in any way refute the latter.

This means that in effect logic (the logic of premises clearly stated and conclusions drawn from them) is all on one side.

The reasons this doesn’t make more difference than it does are various:

  • the major premise about the authority of the Bible is believed more or less strongly by different people
  • there is an increasing implausibility to the proposition that homosexuality is wrong as people’s experience changes with changing social mores
  • there is a greater emotional charge to the hurt done by the denunciation for people who know well people who are impacted by it

So what can be done to move things forward? First I think we need to think more carefully about the actual nature of the authority of the Bible, especially in matters of ethics. Personally I think the Calvinist approach is a significantly less adequate one than that of the Lutheran tradition. Luther was much more serious than Calvin about the implications of the fall in ethics, in my view, in ways that were influenced by his more thoroughgoing eschatology. We should revive and develop the “two kingdoms” Lutheran ethical programme, which works far better in a post-Christendom world. This would allow us to have a proper debate about the relationship between morality and Scripture rather than either the simplistic short-circuit that ignore eschatological issues (“traditionalist”) or the half-hearted compromises of liberal moralising.

Secondly we need to return to the actual texts on this basis and have a mature conversation about them, especially in regard to ministry. What do the “household codes” really mean for us today? This would involve us doing some real thinking about the nature of ordination and the role of the minister that is urgently needed in our denominations as this role changes in ways that we have neither theologised nor defined, leaving our ministers confused and resentful in ways that are deeply damaging to our mission.

  1. Thanks for your clear explanation of the positions. As one who is relatively new to faith, despite advancing years, and very new to the Church of Scotland I find myself in a confusing position. Pre-faith I would have been supportive of the revisionist view but my faith position is that I favour the traditionalist view. Even today I find myself with great sympathy for the revisionist’s stance but, with my faith, I cannot support them. There may well be those on both sides who will see my position as the result of lack of knowledge and/or lack of thought. They may well be correct but I am where I am.

  2. R Johnston said:

    You are right. The revisionist position is a failure to be biblical and I don’t think any amount of exegetical or hermeneutical somersaults will change this problem.

    The issue of biblical authority is of far greater consequence than the issue of homosexuality (which is important in its own right). The willingness of some to ignore the plain meaning of the biblical texts is for me disturbing. Even more disturbing is the willingness to manufacture a theological trajectory that affirms moral bahaviour that the Bible consistently and with one voice calls sin. To redefine sin (in this case, the homosexual act) is to reject biblical authority. What kind of man made religion will we create if we follow this path? If we reject the word that God has spoken we are in a very precarious position indeed. Of course this involves a very personal and painful struggle for some. But we all face this struggle regardless of orientation. As Paul says, following detailed argument on sexual morality “Honour God with your body” (1 Cor 6:20)

    • As I thought my post made clear I do NOT think the revisionist position fails to be Biblical but rather that those arguing for it, on the whole, so fail. I believe that it is possible to argue for the ordination of homosexual people while accepting the authority of Scripture but that few attempts to do so have been made.

      • R Johnston said:

        So you think homosexual practice is biblical?

      • I think nothing is Biblical in any meaningful sense except the Bible itself. The question of who may and who may not be ordained is not one that can be settled on the basis of who lives up fully to the way of life taught by Jesus or there would be no ministers at all.

      • R Johnston said:

        Are you evading the point? The NT speaks with one voice on the specific references to homosexual practice (I didn’t mention ordination of those with homosexual orientation). The task of the biblical theologian is to consider the meanings of the relevant biblical texts and seek to embrace the truth and with the help of God live in the truth. Repentance is the ongoing process where we seek to turn away from sin and live a holy life.

      • I don’t think I am evading the point since what is in dispute in the Church of Scotland is precisely who may or may not be ordained.

      • R Johnston said:

        But the issue relates to whether homosexual practice is biblical or not. You say yourself in your blog that the traditionalist arguments are “far more consistent and compelling”. On this we agree.

      • It relates to that issue but I would suggest that the relationship is less straightforward than you seem to be suggesting. There are a number of things condemned in the Bible that we don’t see as excluding people from ministry, the difficulty is in discerning what forms of failure do so exclude.

  3. R Johnston said:

    So do you affirm that homosexual practice is sin as the writings of the Apostle Paul in the NT do?

    You are right that we can all struggle with sin in many ways. But it is a very diffrent matter when we redefine sin and call that which Scripture calls sin to be acceptable. We are called to repentance from sin (and that is far wider than just homosexual practice but does include homosexual practice).

    It seems to me that you accept that the traditionalist view does interpret Scripture correctly on this matter but that you want to move the goal posts regarding the authority of the Bible? Or have I misunderstood you? You speak about the Calvinist and Lutheran approach to biblical authority. Can you give some more detail on what you mean by this? Thanks.

    • I didn’t say anything about the way the traditionalists interpret Scripture, but rather that I think they at least are taking Scripture seriously.

      I think we need to be careful in the way we handle the ethical content of the New Testament. I take a key part of its teaching to be a radically theocentric understanding of sin, by which I mean that “sin” in the New Testament is not primarily about behaviour but about relationship to God.

      There are profound implications for our understanding of the relationship between ethics and faith, implications explored fruitfully by Paul, in particular. 1 Cor 7-10 is a very good place to start

  4. Nick, I am really confused now not about my position but with your inability or unwillingness, or so it appears, to expand on your position. Perhaps if you explain your stance I will get greater clarity over mine.

    You state @ 11.59 “…. I do NOT think the revisionist position fails to be Biblical ….” How do you support this statement?

    You write also @ 11.59 “I believe that it is possible to argue for the ordination of homosexual people while accepting the authority of Scripture …” Will you argue this position here?

    • Reduced to its essentials this argument would say that it is not necessary to be without sin to be a minister of Word and Sacraments (or there could be no ministers of Word and Sacraments). This is not to say that there are not forms of behaviour that would exclude a candidate from such ministry, just that the criterion cannot be “are they sinners?”

  5. But that isn’t the traditionalists’ line, is it?

    Of course, all who come to the ministry are sinners but provided ‘they’ repent of their sins there should be no barrier to entry to the ministry. Traditionalists are, I believe, saying that homosexual practice is a sin according to the Bible and, therefore, unless there is repentance there cannot be entry to the ministry. I see the revisionists’ position as being that homosexual practice is not a sin and, therefore, there is no reason to repent and no reason to bar entry to the ministry. I’m sure you’ll correct me if my assessment of the two positions is wrong.

    How do you answer my two questions from 2.16pm

    • If that is the revisionists’ line (and in some cases I think you’re right in thinking that it is) they’re wrong. The whole point of my post is to say that while I agree with their conclusion I think their arguments (on the whole) are hopeless.

      • R Johnston said:

        You think it is hopeless for those who feel they are homosexually orientated not to be able to practice homosexuality? I think this would be to minimise the power of the redemption we have in Christ. We will all struggle to some extent with sin and the temptation to sin until the day we die. But there is also a place in Christ where we can enjoy new life in the Spirit and overcome. And one day our struggle with sin will be over.

        “And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us”. (Romans 8:23)

      • I don’t remember saying anything about hopelessness. I repeat we are all sinners and all in need of grace. If we were to be excluded from ministry unless we could say that we had won our battle with sin then I do not believe there would be a single minister anywhere.

      • R Johnston said:

        Regarding hopelessness you did say above regarding the traditionalist view ” I think their arguments (on the whole) are hopeless.”

        I agree that we will all face the battle with sin until the day we die. But the question is more about staying in the fight. “Fight the good fight of faith holding onto faith and a good conscience” (1 Tim 1:19). In order to stay in the fight it is necessary to seek to walk in repentance from sin.

    • Calum, in answer to your two questions:

      1) I think that the Biblical route to the revisionists’ conclusion is via a recognition that the call of the gospel is to faith in God not to adherence to a redefined law
      2) I don’t have time to develop this argument fully today – if you look at my posts on the New Testament teachings on marriage and on the possibility of knowing right from wrong you’ll get some idea of where I would begin

  6. But RJ and I aren’t saying – I hope it’s OK to bring you in on this, RJ – “If we were to be excluded from ministry unless we could say that we had won our battle with sin then I do not believe there would be a single minister anywhere.“. It’s as though you are setting this up as a ‘strawman’ argument which you then pull down.

    You state @ 2.46 “ I think that the Biblical route to the revisionists’ conclusion is via a recognition that the call of the gospel is to faith in God not to adherence to a redefined law” What “redefined law” are you referring to?

    Could I have faith in God if, for example, I refused to acknowledge that my repeated breaking of one of the ten commandments was a sin?

    • No – but then I don’t think you could be properly faithful unless you were to acknowledge that everything you did was sin. To quote Calvin: “For our nature is not only utterly devoid of goodness, but so prolific in all kinds of evil, that it can never be idle. Those who term it concupiscence use a word not very inappropriate, provided it were added, (this, however, many will by no means concede,) that everything which is in man, from the intellect to the will, from the soul even to the flesh, is defiled and pervaded with this concupiscence; or, to express it more briefly, that the whole man is in himself nothing else than concupiscence.” (Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 2, Chapter 1, Section 8)

      • But what “redefined law” are you referring to?

        I want to hear the revisionists’ case. Perhaps it’s my newness to faith and my lack of knowledge but I can’t help feeling that you are skirting around the questions that I and RJ have asked. You’re giving us plenty of words but no clarity. Again, those of more mature faith and with greater knowledge might find your answers are clear.

      • A standard “traditionalist” argument is that the Law remains in force but redefined through the gospel. That’s why some but not all of the rules specified in Leviticus are held to be in force.

      • R Johnston said:

        This would be Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity. This does not mean that we avoid the need for personal repentance from sins that we are conscious of.

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