In 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.