Failing to be Biblical (2): How the traditionalists fail

paulIn my last post I expressed some frustration at the ways in which the “revisionists” in the Church of Scotland debate (with whom I agree) fail to develop a proper argument. They neither deny the authority of the Bible nor produce a convincing case that the Bible does not condemn homosexual behaviour. They do not challenge the idea that behaviour condemned by the Bible precludes ordination to the ministry of Word and Sacraments and so are left with moralistic and emotional appeals unsupported by logic (which is not to say these appeals have no place in the debate, I think they do, but only that they are weakened by by so unsupported).

In this post I want to suggest that the positions developed by the traditionalists are themselves not properly “Biblical” but that to see this one has to open up questions many of the revisionists are equally unwilling to consider, which is why the debate is so highly unsatisfactory.

In brief I think that:

  • the New Testament has a consistent and clear bias towards celibacy with marriage being an acceptable second best to be entered into where celibacy is unattainable and marriage is not, on the whole, given a positive value (this is a change from the Old Testament)
  • this bias is related to a view in the New Testament that the redeemed humanity will be asexual and that this redemption is this-worldly (that is to say at the second coming this world will be transformed and this transformation will do away with sex)
  • this view is not acceptable to most modern evangelicals whose eschatology is seriously deficient, from a Biblical point of view, and who have, as a consequence, tamed the radical ethical positions of the New Testament and adapted to social norms that are now passing away
  • it is not acceptable to most liberals either whose eschatology is also seriously deficient, in a somewhat different way, and who have adapted to the new set of social norms that are replacing those still dominating the views of their “traditionalist” opponents

I have to confess that I am bewildered that anyone can deny the bias towards celibacy in the NT, it seems to me so obviously the “plain sense” of the text. The key passages are:

  • Mark 12:18-27, Matt 22:23-33, Luke 20:27-40 which all report Jesus’ denial of the continuation of marriage after the resurrection
  • Matthew 19:10-12 “eunuchs for the kingdom” where Jesus says that celibacy is better for those capable of it
  • Mark 10:29-30 (parallels in Matt 19:29 and Luke 18:29-30) which call on the disciples to abandon family ties
  • 1 Cor 7 where Paul discusses celibacy at length making clear in v8 that it is best to remain celibate but conceding that marriage is acceptable where this cannot be sustained

I don’t intend to go through these passages in detail here, merely to note that to me they add up to a clear message: it is better not to marry but marriage is an acceptable option where the alternative is sexual relations outside marriage. My impression from my researches in the scholarly literature is that far from being an eccentric reading it is the one assumed by most of those who have looked at the issue within the discipline of New Testament research. The recent scholarship is admirably surveyed and discussed in the 2005 book “Sexuality and the Jesus Tradition” by William Loader,

My question, then, is why this bias towards celibacy is so totally absent from the “Biblical” arguments for “traditional” positions within the Church of Scotland and across all denominations where issues of sexuality are being debated? On the whole it is as if these passages simply do not exist and are not relevant, which is peculiar given how prominent marriage has been in the discussion.

This brings me to the second main argument, which is that this gap in the debate is related to difficulties with eschatology. It seems to me equally clear that the Biblical witness is for a world made new by God’s action as the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation. In this, again, I think I am not arguing a position that stands radically outside the mainstream. This position has been gaining ground ever since the rediscovery of the first Century Judaic background of Jesus’ ministry and teaching. The most prominent proponent of it is now probably NT (Tom) Wright.

This contrasts with the predominant approach in mainstream evangelicalism with its primary focus on individual salvation through a personal relationship with Jesus. This tends, in my view, towards an over-emphasis on individual morality and away from total dependence on God. It also erases the difference between the eschatological morality of the Kingdom and the moral possibilities of the fallen condition we now inhabit (which was central to the teaching of Luther who remains, in my view, an indispensable guide to Reformation ethics and a corrective to the authoritarianism of much of the Calvinist tradition).

The problem with the ethical consequences of giving up on God’s plan to redeem this world and turning to escape to another world (“heaven”) is that it means that our behaviour here and now has to be in accord with God’s intention for us. The way this is enabled is by reducing the demands that God makes to those that we can achieve, in this case making marriage the ideal since that’s what we are thought capable of. This is not what Paul does. He is clear that marriage is not God’s ideal but also that it may be all we can do. He can maintain this position because he believes it to be temporary.

That, in my view, is clearly the Biblical position. In that sense I think the traditionalists fail to be Biblical every bit as much as do the revisionists, just in a different and more difficult to discern way.

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6 comments
  1. I am always encouraged by your willingness to champion the call to singleness as an honourable state given by God to us for our sanctification and growth in Christ-likeness. I will never accept the claim that ‘the traditionalists fail to be Biblical every bit as much as do the revisionists’, because I have attended evangelical seminars and heard sermons on this from groups as diverse as the European Students Missionary Association to New Word Alive Conference in the UK. I’ve heard evangelical leaders preach on this time and time again (and they are not being run through like your straw man here). I am not saying you cannot find an example of bad teaching, but we try to engage with the best arguments presented by a given tradition rather than the worst. I’ve heard Matt Hatch, John Stott, Vaughan Roberts, and John Piper teach on this subject. I believe that when 1 Corinthians 7.7 tells us that ‘each of you have your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that’ it means just that: that singleness and marriage are both gifts from God. I believe Paul is telling the truth, we don’t gain from contrasting one state over and against another, we gain when we understand that both states are gifts given by God and should be honoured as such. From my perspective as a single man to take any view that is different from that it to be less than Biblical and I would oppose it (not on the grounds that it’s not conservative or not liberal enough, but on the grounds that it’s not Biblical enough).

    • Thanks for this, James, and I’m encouraged to hear that some have been recognising the call to celibacy in the NT. Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough that my remarks were related to the “traditionalist” position in the Church of Scotland debate, most particularly as it is expressed in the report of the theological commission where it is not really addressed at all. I can’t agree that the NT posits marriage and celibacy as equal gifts. It would indeed be possible to construe 1 Cor 7:7 in this way but I think that, in context, is not the most natural construal.

  2. As a “traditionalist”, my PhD thesis was on 1Cor7 and very much emphasised the priority for celibacy in Pauline thought. If you take the time to read the 2011 report or marriage, and the 2009 report on singleness (I was on the working group), you’ll find this is made very clear. (Incidentally, none of the traditionalists on the group made any objection.)

    It is an important point. Too much “family values” Christianity neglects the radicallness of Jesus, and the NT priority of the Christian community over the natural family. Ironically, at this point it colludes with the secular assumption of the “right to family life” and the cultural implication that those not in sexual relationships are unfulfilled. Once that point is conceded then it is hard to resist the revisionist argument that gay Christians have a right to relationships too.

    • Then I guess you’re in the same position as me on the other side of the debate, Alistair. Surely section 7.6.5 ‘New Testament Conclusion’ is a total failure.

  3. Some very interesting views and comments. To digress slightly, I have noticed that in churches I’ve attended, families and couples are treated quite differently from single people, in a way that suggests there is something deficient in singleness. We have family services on a regular basis for example. I am a married father and notice I can be “let off the hook” from just about any church commitment because I have a child. True, there is a time demand, but we make many assumptions and we rarely challenge them, yet will rally against many other things in the name of the Bible…

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