Tuesday 2 August 2016

Positive about Scripture: Positive about Equal Marriage

Many of the discussions I have been involved in about ‘Equal Marriage’ have come up against the assumption that those who believe that same sex relationships can be part of God’s purpose for gay men and women have abandoned their belief in the Bible’s authority.

Of course that can be the way some have developed in their theology but I believe that a fresh understanding of the breadth of marriage can also arise from a deeper view of the Bible’s authority over our lives. This blog summarises the approach I have taken when speaking in various contexts on this issue.

Many evangelicals, in particular, base their approach on an understanding of propositional revelation; in short, that the Bible has one meaning and that the will of God can be read off from the pages of Scripture so that there is a correct answer to all major questions of ethics. Over the years many of us add a deeper and more nuanced understanding to this starting point.

For me a major influence has been the approach of the American theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, and his championing of Narrative Theology. This reminds us that the Bible is first and foremost a story, the story of God’s involvement with humanity. It is the story which provides the framework for the whole of our understanding and way of life. Its authority is transformative, not just in the truths it reveals at first glance, but in the way it invites us to inhabit the story and discover its life transforming power in our daily lives. As God’s story it has the power to change and direct all that we are and do.

Narrative theology asks that we take time to inhabit the story; to leave the story as story as it does its work with the people of God today. We will not too quickly form ethical conclusions and moral rules which apply to all people for all time. We are prepared to stand back awhile and see how God’s story is inviting us to live now. It is clear to us from the story that God deals with the followers of Christ in different ways and provides appropriately for the forgiveness, wellbeing and flourishing of humanity at different times and in different places. And when by God’s Spirit we recognize and accept our place in the story we act on the truth it has given us.

I am also indebted to the approach of Walter Brueggemman who counsels us to believe that there is often more than one appropriate answer to an issue when we consider a particular verse or passage of the Bible. He criticizes ‘the pervasive Western, Christian propensity to flatten, to refuse ambiguity, to lose density, and to give universalizing closure… Classical Western theological discourse, wants to overcome all ambiguity and give closure in the interest of certitude (‘Theology of the Old Testament’ 1997, page 81 & 82).

To consider a passage broadly before asserting the definitive position and to live with the various possibilities of the story adds a greater degree of humility to our theology. We believe in the authority and power of the scriptures no less, and we are cautious not to use an all-too-certain interpretation of a Bible verse or passage as a way of exercising power over others. Many people, and in particular our LGBT brothers and sisters have often experienced being silenced and excluded by a lack of such an approach. The use of the six or so verses in the Bible, which in some way or another refer to same-sex activity, can be experienced as one group of Christians exercising power over them and forbidding to them what God wills for the whole of humanity.

Embracing this narrative approach as part of the transformative power of the Bible means that we notice many of our fellow human beings inhabiting God’s story differently from ourselves. I am therefore careful not too quickly to censor or criticize another Christian who has arrived at a different way of following Christ. At any given time, I may be wrong, or they may be wrong, but we may both be right! This approach fosters a more generous approach - in line with our all generous God

Application to Equal Marriage

Is there some way in which we can understand how an LGBT person may inhabit the bible’s stories and hear God slightly differently from the rest of us? Is it possible that there are several contrasting stories, or different interpretations of the same story – rather than a point blank, ‘Thou shalt not…’? As one indication of how I have approached the question of equal marriage I reflect on the creation story in Genesis 2.

Some words written by a gay friend of mine set the context of how he may well read this particular bible story: ‘We are all created by God to be who we are, including gays and lesbians. It’s just as natural and spiritually correct to be gay as it is to be left-handed.’ Such a statement abbreviates all the debates about ‘nature or nurture’ and the respective balance between the two - probably different in different people. But most churches will have some, maybe quite a few LGBT individuals or couples who live in a society where it is fully legal for them to be married to one of their own sex. Some of these will feel called to remain single as their way of following Christ, but some will wish to live in a faithful loving intimate relationship as part of how they live out their Christian discipleship.  

My gay friends and I both read the same bible and are called to inhabit the same stories. As we approach the paradigmatic story in Genesis 2 which describes the wonder of discovering our life’s partner, we both feel drawn to the divine announcement, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone.’ Central to the story is the need to find a life partner who will be fully suitable to the needs of both and sustain them as they leave the parental home and launch out on life together. At first there comes the almost comical process of looking around at different possible partners -  and for some of us that can take a long time in reality, though all the ‘possibles’ in our list will be human! Then as I walk in the garden and am presented with this range of possible partners – as was Adam – I am unsatisfied until I see the other human being – the one who became my wife – and I exclaim, ‘this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!’ As von Rad writes of this moment, ‘Now God himself, like the father of the bride, leads the woman to the man. The man in supreme joy at once recognizes the new creature as one belonging completely to him.’ (Genesis. London.1972. p.84) For me, and for most others I know this encounter has been one of the most thrilling of all life’s discoveries.

The main point of this story is finding someone who is equal to our needs, the same as me, not someone who is different (like the animals) but of the same stuff as Adam. The animals will not do - because they are different. For most of us this deepest fulfilment will be in a human being of the opposite sex – but that is not so for all….

Furthermore, this portion of scripture is such an important and powerful story that it must not merely be reduced into a universal moral code or an immutable set of ethical rules. It must also be allowed to speak afresh to us as story. However, the uncomfortable truth is that LGBT people usually hear interpretations of this story that say – ‘This is not for you; this is forbidden’

But for a moment allow a gay Christian man to inhabit the story. In terms of narrative theology, a gay person is there in the garden asking God to find a partner for him who is fully equal to his needs. He wishes to discover mutual support that will sustain them both as a couple through the whole of their life’s journey together and with God. As God presents various possible partners to him – as in the original drama - he sees all of these as inadequate for his deepest needs. He does not recognize one who will be a soul mate in whom depths of sexual intimacy can be found. Various young women are presented to him and, though he wants to be friends they do not awaken in him that deep recognition that here is one who is his partner for life. Then after a while a man is presented to him. There is a different level of recognition and response. This for him is the beginnings of what he has been longing for and he exclaims, 'This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!’ They can become one.

My hope and prayer is that more and more people will see that there is more than one way to inhabit God’s story in the Bible. As this happens many more will be asking the church to interpret its understanding of marriage in a fully inclusive way - or at the very least hoping that others who disagree will allow blessings of same sex marriages. They will hope that the church will accept a diversity of practice - leaving two contrasting stories/interpretations on the table to allow the dialogue to continue. 

I see this approach as ‘generous orthodoxy’. It enables the Church to offer God’s blessing to all couples who wish to make a faithful life-long commitment in love to one another. It gives us a gospel that proclaims God’s love equally to all.


  1. Thank you for this!

    It has always troubled me that conservative interpretations of gen 2 place such a heavy emphasis on gender difference but completely ignore the suitability aspect. The passage does not to me to say that gender difference is more important than suitability!

    Something that straight people may miss when reading Gen2 is the heteronormativity aspect. Gay people are accustomed to literature, fact and fiction being written from a straight perspective because the vast majority of people are straight.

    I think gay people are less likely to see emphasis on gender difference in this passage because it is everywhere.

    1. Thanks Pete. I am sure you're right that our own personal experience colours how we read scripture. It's also interesting that the emphasis on gender difference rather than suitability and sameness has emerged strongly in more conservative circles as they confront the increasing acceptance of gay relationships among Christians. I think that the use of the text as a campaigning tool leads to missing one of the main emphases of the story!

  2. David,

    I found this post of yours incredibly helpful and it resonates with my own intuitions and life experience. So I thank you very much.

    In my early years of Christian engagement, I looked for certainty and exactitude, which I thought the Bible could provide.

    However, as I have tried to journey with God (or more importantly perhaps, God has journeyed with me) I have found in contemplative experience, the value of letting go of the controls and that human desire to define and dictate... and instead, have found that sometimes God comes to us, through what the medieval writer called a 'cloud of unknowing'.

    So the way you suggest that there may not always be just one right way to respond to the Bible, but that two different responses may *both* be right, rings true to me.

    As Christians, I think it is a shame if we try to 'dominate' one another, and insist on just one way of responding to the Bible and responding to God.

    The language that remains universal, it seems to me, is the primary imperative: to love. We see that in the life (and enigma) of Jesus. Jesus who never wrote a word himself that we have record of (except perhaps some lines in the sand when people wanted to stone the adultress). The Bible is people's responses to encounter with God, just as we too try to respond and make sense of the God who we encounter.

    My hope for the Church is that we can accept more open-endedness, and afford grace and space for other Christians to hold views that are diverse and different from our own. I believe in 'unity in diversity'... in the unity we have, not from uniformity, but from the eternal unity and communion that eternally operates between the Holy Trinity, and into which we seem to be invited and called. Our unity is found in Christ, I believe.

    We live in an age that sometimes seems very driven with tense mental control. And sometimes, when our own values feel threatened, we make those controls even tenser. Stories which were probably intended as campfire myths, even at the time they were written down, to be received with wonder and imagination, get recruited as precise and literal narratives. If anything, I feel that that can diminish the authority and impact of scripture.

    God, in all eternity, lives in relationship, community, and love - a mystery of the Holy Trinity. And we are invited into mystery as well. Even our human relationships can be, in their own ways, mysterious and wonderful. I think we lose something if we lose that child-like wonder, and try to tie everything down to precision and facts... as if we can 'capture' that Spirit who blows where he/she wills.

    But if we can open our hearts to the love of God... and let that love inform our relationships and actions, our reading and understanding, our exercise of conscience... then the flow of God's love begins and God's nature breaks through. Not in doctrinal control or uniformity, but in the call to love: to love God, to love our neighbour, to love one another.


  3. I very much appreciate reading your post, because it feels like the outcome of life, and prayer, and a spiritual journey (still continuing!) - and because perhaps, as you say, two understandings of truth may *both* hold true, in their own ways, for different people's journeys.

    Perhaps more important than 'Who is right?' is 'Can we open our hearts to love?' Perhaps that is the real test. As a Church, can we respect one another's right to conscientious belief, even where we differ? Can we share together in service? Can we pray for one another's flourishing?

    Then, I believe, we start to open ourselves to true unity - the unity that we can only, ever, find in Jesus Christ, in the living God.

    Demands for uniformity to create 'unity'... Pastoral Letters that threaten sanctions for non-conformity... Primates' Meetings that threaten 'consequences' and relational distancing for different conscientious beliefs... seem to me to be more abut control, than about that letting go, and letting God.

    We need to afford one another more space for grace. We need to love one another, and treasure the reality that each one of us is different and unique, yet loved deeply by God. How we deal with difference is possibly more important than the perennial question of 'Who is right?'

    How we exercise love, how we open up to the Love that God longs to share with us, may be to trust a bit more, to control a bit less.

    In contemplation we wait and gaze, until sometimes by grace, our controlling minds recede, and God's love and presence - in vastness - breaks through.

    That experience in chapel or on the mountainside needs to become a way we live our lives: because love fulfils the law. Love liberates us to be who we, uniquely and variously, are called to be and become. Love sometimes starts where words trail off... beyond the limits of what we now see but darkly.

    Where Christians respond in different ways to parts of the Bible, that should not be a reason for schism, but rather, a reason for falling back on love. We are diverse, we may have diverse ways of coming at things, but like the cat in the physics exercise, in the eyes of God it may not be a matter of dead or alive.

    Opening our hearts to God, to God's grace and God's love, is where we begin... just begin... to be 'right'.


    1. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Susannah. Beautifully expressed and very much in line with my own approach.