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  • Writer's pictureDavid Runcorn

How to be biblical - responsibly


 

The text of a talk given recently by David Runcorn at an evening organized by Coventry Diocese Inclusive Anglicans and Warwick & Leamington LGBTXians. Over 150 people attended. The evening included worship, prayer and time for questions and discussions with a panel.



I am very grateful for our invitation to be part of this event and to be celebrating and honouring in the wonderful and brave journeys of love and faith represented here this evening.  I have long believed that the scriptures can be read with integrity and faithfulness, without bypassing ‘awkward’ passages, in a way that affirms inclusion, welcome and the celebrating of committed human love for all. This evening I want to share the basis for that belief.

 

The debate over sexuality has been forcing Christians to re-visit traditional teaching and their understanding of how the bible speaks to us today. As this concerns the deepest core of our human identity, belonging, desire, faith and meaning we do not come to this lightly. It is unsettling. A lot is at stake. So it is a very anxious debate. We have not been here before as a church.

 

We continue to need safe places for creative engagement between the bible and our lived context. I hope this evening is one. We not here to win arguments. We are here to share a vision for a new way of being church and community.

 

Back last summer a small group of us shared our concern at the lack of such spaces within our own evangelical tradition and launched ‘Inclusive Evangelicals’ with a web site containing a growing range of articles, blogs and other resources. We also created a private face book group by the same name – a space to explore the theology of same sex relationships from a biblical perspective. It grew to 1600 people in 3 months.

 

This evening I want to offer some brief reflections on two core issues in the current debate.  

1. Whether the Church of England can change its doctrine.

2. What exactly it means to be ‘biblical’.

 

 

Upholding doctrine

 

Bishops and clergy in the Church of England are specifically charged with upholding the doctrine of the church. There is a concern by supporting same-sex relationships and marriage the doctrine of the church is being abandoned. I have been told I am breaking my ordination vows.

 

Now upholding doctrine is very important. But the Church of England also believes in the development of doctrine. Upholding doctrine has never meant guarding against any change. It means allowing doctrine to faithfully develop in response to new questions and understandings in each generation. 

 

Over the last century and within our lifetime the CofE has changed and developed its doctrine several times. Not least in its understanding of marriage.

Consider this. 100 years ago this evening the CofE doctrine of marriage would include:

- that marriage is life long and indissoluble. No divorce allowed.

- total opposition to artificial contraception (then just becoming available in reliable form for the first time in world history).

- having children was a national and religious duty. Large Christian families ensured a good breeding stock for the nation was maintained.

- sexual intercourse without the intention to produce children was

indulgent, lacked self-control and sinful.

 

Is that our understanding of Christian marriage today? Has it not developed?

 

Not until 1958 was contraception finally fully accepted by the Lambeth Conference. Not until the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act could women have an independent financial life, separate bank account, a mortgage etc. Even Margaret Thatcher needed her husband for that. A patriarchal, headship understanding of marriage was behind all that. The woman promised to obey.

In 1980 the CofE revised its marriage service. In the Book of Common Prayer the first two reasons for marriage were to have children and as a remedy against sin. Now, for the first time, marriage is firstly for companionship, and sex is not just for procreation. Reliable contraception was a major factor behind this change. Something the bible never teaches about – or even knew would ever one day be possible. In 1994 the first women were ordained – another doctrinal change after nearly 2000 years of history. In 2002 the Church of England changed its doctrine again to allow divorced people to remarry in church.

 

Note that for many of these issues the pressure for change came initially from culture and society and were initially strongly resisted by the church.

Not all culture is Godless and church teaching is not automatically gospel and enlightened.

 

Oliver O’Donovan once warned - ‘We have to be alert to the possibility of doctrine being renewed out of scripture in a way that takes the church by surprise.’ He wrote that in a book about marriage, society and the bible, written by conservative evangelical theologians.

 

This, I think, is where we find ourselves – being surprised by God, who is always making all things new.

 


Being biblical


The idea that belief and understanding develops and is renewed is not new.

All of us here have been doing this for some time actually.

 

If don’t call divorced and remarried people adulterers and stone them.

If we do not expect women to be silent and wear hats in church and learn

theology from their husbands at home.

If we borrow and lend money on interest.

If disabled people are not excluded from worship or ministry …

 

    -  we have already moved significantly beyond what the Bible explicitly

‘says’ and never revokes.

 

The process of re-visiting previously unquestioned biblical convictions under the compelling of the Spirit as we read afresh in every generation and in the light of new questions is not something we are unfamiliar with.


So we are here, with bibles open, seeking to follow Christ.

This is how we do faith.

 

All this consistently requires us ask something more than ‘is the bible God’s revealed word and authoritative or not?’. We must ask what kind of revelation it actually is, the nature of its authority, and how it speaks and guides us into the fresh challenges and experiences each generation encounters.  Many of the conflicts over what ‘the bible says’ actually centre around misunderstandings about how the bible is saying it.

 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes that although there are 613 commands/laws in the Torah, ancient Hebrew had no word for ‘obey’. Modern Hebrew had to create a word for outright obedience. The Hebrew words shema and lishmoa express a call to hear, listen, attend, discern, understand. English translations miss this by nearly always translating those words ‘obey’. But in fact, our English word ‘obey’ comes from the Latin meaning ‘to give ear to’.  It means ‘to hear’, as in Hebrew!

 

Sacks suggests from this that God seeks from us ‘a greater virtue than obedience’. We are not just to do what we are told. He seeks our responsibility. We are to hear, read and respond responsibly.

 

Honouring the authority of scripture means engaging in careful dialogue with the text, with God and with each other – a work of continuing, communal discernment. Hearing, listening, attending, understanding. So when the Living in Love and Faith process put story and dialogue at the centre of its approach it could not be more biblical. 

 

This dialogue is found within scripture itself. For example, the way the wisdom tradition challenges the confident certainties of the dominant Deuteronomic voices - ‘Do good and you will be blessed, do bad and it will go bad’. Excuse me, says Job and others, life is not that simple. Bad things happen to good people and many evil people seem to escape with their health and wealth! Another example is the way the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles offer very contrasting assessments on Israel’s history. And whenever the New Testament quotes from or alludes to Old Testament texts they change them, conceptually or literally, in nearly every case. Jesus reading and preaching from Isaiah at Nazareth is a striking example of this. 

Here is a continuing revelation, through the scriptures, under the Lordship of Christ and the compelling of the Spirit.

 

Let me offer two examples of the challenge to be ‘biblical’ and reading responsibly.  

 

The word ‘homosexual’ in the Bible.

 

Whenever the bible records incidents of same-sex sexual activity - which is not often - it judges it severely. And so would we. They are all various examples of sexual subjugation, gang rape, violence, unbridled lust and coercive male dominance. These are clearly not texts upon which to base biblical responses to the presence of faithful, loving relationships among Christians today. But that still too often happens.

 

The first time the word ‘homosexual’ was used to translate any such words in the Bible was in 1949 – the first edition of the RSV. 1 Corinthians 6 has a list of people who will not inherit the kingdom. The list includes two Greek words arsenokoitai and malakoi, widely thought to refer to active and passive partners in same sex sexual activity (roles in sex were very important in the ancient world). The translators chose to combine the two by using the word ‘homosexual’. We do not know why. At the time homosexuality was a criminal offence and regarded as a mental illness often treated by castration. Later translations followed this lead though – so ever since, ‘homosexual’ is forced to keep company, in many English bibles, with the most godless, abusive or criminal behaviour. 

Does this in any way describe faithful, loving, committed relationships among us today? This is not responsible reading of the bible - in fact it has been abusive of people and their relationships.

 

 

Marriage in the Genesis Garden

 

There is a strong focus on the creation account in the marriage debate today. Surely that is where God has definitively revealed his founding intention for humanity – marriage, between a man and a woman – a ‘gift of God in creation’? Well, it was a man and a woman in the beginning. But if this story is to tell of the origins of the human race that is a practical necessity. It would be a very short story otherwise. The loving partnership of male and female that enables the wonder of biological life creation is core to humanity and to be utterly honoured. No one is disputing that. But thereafter I do not think interpreting this story is quite so straight forward.

 

Remember – to get to what the bible is saying we must pay attention to how it is saying it. In biblical studies there is now an emphasis on the place of narrative and story and how the literary style communicates meaning and intention.

 

What is that very subtle and imaginative Hebrew wisdom tale actually about? Is it really centred on providing the definitive beginnings of marriage and gender?  

Did you know that in the Hebrew, the name of God changes three times between Genesis 1-3 – each time in relation to the emerging relationship of God with human creation. Elohim in Gen 1, then Yahweh Elohim and finally, after the Fall – Yahweh. This is easily lost in translation but the storyteller wants us to notice.

 

There are two stories of human origin. In Genesis 1 they were created together in the image of God. Male and female. [Not male or female, note. The pairing is like light and dark, land and water. Not binary opposites. This is a way of expressing the whole width of humanity]

Genesis 2 starts with one human in the likeness of - mud. They are not good on their own. The human is not looking for love. They need help with the work. God creates another equal partner. Likeness is stressed not differences – though they are there too. In the story a work relationship merges into loving partnership. I expect some of us first met our partners at work. Marriage is only spoken of in an aside. The word itself is never used.

 

The names of the first humans likewise develops. Adam means Human. And for most of the story the Hebrew just speaks of The Human. The Human’s companion is called Wo-man. Even when The Human meets the Wo-man she is just named like another creatures. She is created entirely to meet The Human’s needs. She is given no choice or voice. She only receives a personal name, Eve, after the Fall when she conceives for the first time. ‘Adam’ does not become a clearly personal name for The Human until their third child is conceived in Genesis 4.

 

There is no one else in the garden at all. No other relationships of any kind.

No marriage actually happens there. They have no sex or children until after the fall.  No one assumes from this that children are the result of Original Sin!

 

Does this really sound to you like an account of marriage to you?

 

So what story is actually being told there? Marriage is implicit and, yes, very important - but it is one part of a much fuller poetic parable about what it means to be created human and to live in this world in the will and purpose of God – and the consequences of not doing that. Immense care is needed in applying this story to the very modern questions we are bringing to it - such as finding fixed, universal understandings of human biology, relationships and identity. The story is descriptive – not prescriptive. When we force it to support our own beliefs about marriage we are not reading scripture faithfully. We are not hearing it on its own terms.

 

In this profound wisdom parable, five things are found at the heart of committed human relationships:

delighted recognition

choice

cleaving

community kinship – which is the fullest meaning of ‘one flesh’

and

the care of creation

 

The rest is left remarkably open. The whole rich and complex variety of human relating and belonging is not even there. There are no models of any other human relationship or community. It is simply not that kind of story. To try and make it so is to make a category error.

 

Other expressions of human relationship and who may be part of them are left to us to faithfully and responsibly explore in each generation. That is why we have ended up here this evening. If we are unwilling or unable to do this, we will be unable to respond faithfully to what we are being called to in this emerging world, under the guiding of Word and Spirit.  


... but one thing is clear - narrow this story down to one very exclusive human relationship, and you exclude everyone else.

 

When these five principles are found very specifically at the covenantal heart of marriage - as they must be - we might well ask if there any reason why marriage could not include those who have found delight, blessing and divine gift in someone of the same sex?

 

 

Two final comments

 

The Inclusive case from scripture is an accumulative one. There are no explicit texts and examples. ‘Show me one text’. Comes the request. ‘Give me one example of blessed gay couples in scripture’. But this is not how scripture reveals and guides.


The bible is not a divine encyclopedia with a text and example for every life question - so that if ‘Blessed gay couples’ are not found in the index, well, they are obviously not biblical.


Nor do we obey every place in the bible where there is a clear text and example. For instance, the church has never campaigned to make rapists marry their victims – though the bible clearly commands that. On the other hand, there are no texts anywhere in the bible condemning slavery and not one example of a blessed slave-free community. But we would claim our opposition to slavery today is utterly biblical. 

 

We are back to the question of how the bible speaks. After translating the bible into The Message, Eugene Peterson warned against what he calls ‘literal’ readings of the bible. He says ‘Literal is almost always a bad translation - you can’t get one language into another by being literal. Interpretation is always involved to get the tone and meaning of the original … it is more than only getting the words right, there is the spirit, the livingness of the message. The task is not to get back to the original but to re-create in the present – and that means taking risks”.

 

Lastly … the church has never been a place where people all believe the same thing - least of all my own evangelical tradition. It has always been a place where there are strong differences and debates going on. It was so in the New Testament where Jew/Gentile divisions run through church life like a fault line. It was their version of our sexuality debates.

Those of us holding inclusive convictions believe it is possible to hold different views with respect. No one is compelled or excluded. We want to walk with, not apart. We hear that in scripture too.

 

So here we have it. Surprised by God, with bibles wide open, in the middle of what is a very prolonged and painful labour - a new church is coming to birth. It is welcoming and blessed. We believe God is doing this.

 

Thank you for listening and I look forward to the discussion that follows …

 

David Runcorn


 

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