For many Christians, the idea that they might ever support same-sex marriage seems unthinkable. The chasm over which they would need to jump appears too wide; the beliefs they would need to jettison too important, the fear they might fall into an irreversible moral relativism too frightening. This, for many, is a make or break issue, going to the very heart of their faith. A major reason for this is that the Bible seems so consistently clear in its condemnation of sexual union between people of the same gender.
Although there are only a small number of references to same-gender sex in the Bible, there can be little doubt about their negative evaluation of this practice. How then can Christians ever think otherwise? How could they ever say ‘Yes’ to same-sex marriage? In this article, I will explore the possibility of the unthinkable becoming thinkable.
Consider the following 5 observations:
1. Most Bible-believing Christians feel free enough to disregard, or to re-interpret, or to re-appropriate at least some Biblical prohibitions. For example, Deuteronomy 22:5 prohibits women from wearing men’s clothing and men from wearing women’s clothing, describing this practice as abhorrent or as an ‘abomination’ to God. This is certainly not complied with, at least strictly, by today’s Christians. In 1 Corinthians 11:14, Paul describes long hair on a man as ‘unnatural’ (the same word as used of same-gender sex in Romans 1). But Christian men, certainly those who lived through the 70s, do wear their hair long; and women their hair short – a practice described by Paul as ‘disgraceful’ in I Corinthians 11:6. Although neither of these practices (of dress or hair length) are as morally significant as having sex, they are examples of where we disregard and/or re-interpret seemingly straightforward Biblical imperatives, whilst seeking to find and be guided by underlying Biblical principles.
2. The Bible is not always uniform or consistent in what it says about things. It has an unfolding dynamism in many of its articulated beliefs and practices. Promises that are understood literally in the early stages of the Bible are later re-interpreted in metaphorical terms. A whole raft of purity laws are over-turned in an instant by Jesus; worship in a Temple is superseded by worship in the Spirit; the command to keep the Sabbath is re-interpreted, and so on. Just because something is believed or practiced at one point in the Bible’s unfolding story does not mean that it is to be believed or practiced later or forever. New experiences and new understandings would often lead to the earlier Scriptures being re-read and re-appropriated.
3. Included among beliefs and practices that have been modified or discarded within the pages of the Bible are ethical or moral practices and beliefs, associated with patriarchy, for example. Biblical writers, to a man, assumed the appropriateness of husbands having power and authority over their wives. In Old Testament legislation involving husbands and wives, wives were considered the property of men, with very few rights and almost no power. However, Jesus and Paul subverted patriarchal beliefs and practices, applying gospel principles to this assumed social practice, thus setting in train a process that would, in time, lead to its demise, as was the case with slavery.
4. There are other beliefs and practices which are not modified or rejected within the pages of the Bible, but which we now have modified or rejected. Historically, there has been a succession of such modifications and rejections. It might be helpful to elaborate a little:
4.1 The Protestant Reformation was noted for its decision to restrict its attention to the literal or straightforward meaning of Biblical texts. Previously, those seeking to understand the Bible looked beyond the literal meaning, in part because of problems they encountered with a literal reading. There were good reasons for this adjustment at the time, but it has created problems – especially when wedded to a doctrine of inerrancy which asserts the literal truth of Biblical propositions. Luther, the pioneer of the plain sense (sensus literalis) approach, encountered early difficulties in his reading of Genesis 1-3. While acknowledging the fable-like nature of these early chapters, he nevertheless reasoned, ‘Although it sounds like a fairy tale to reason, it is the most certain truth. It is revealed in the word of God, which alone impacts true information’ (Lectures on Genesis 1.123).
4.2 By restricting themselves to the literal or plain sense meaning of texts, the Reformers lost the wherewithal to take issue with the text or to find alternative ways of reading it, a problem that the early church fathers did not share. St Augustine, for example, was quick to take a non-literal reading of the early chapters of Genesis. He also counselled against interpreting the Biblical text literally if it contradicts what can be known from science and our God-given reason.
4.3 Through adhering to the plain sense of Scripture, Luther and the other Reformers were quick to dismiss Copernicus, because, as they rightly saw, a heliocentric universe conflicts with a literal reading of the Bible. Melanchthon described Copernicus’s theory as ‘pernicious’, and added, ‘It is a part of a good mind to accept the truth as revealed by God and to acquiesce in it,’ (Initia Doctrinae Physicae, quoted in Sparks, The Sun Also Rises, 114).
4.4 In the years since Luther and Copernicus, discoveries of all sorts have created challenges for Christians who have stuck with Luther’s plain sense reading of the text. The discovery of the New World changed people’s understanding of the antiquity and spread of human civilisation creating insurmountable problems for those trying to harmonize these discoveries with the literal sense of the Bible. Not only is the world much older than a plain reading might suggest, so also are human civilisations. Older still is the lineage of Homo sapiens, with implications for theology.
There are a number of important points to draw from these examples. The first is that a plain sense or literal reading of the Biblical text can, and has historically, got Christians into trouble. Those who continue with this approach often fail to realize, or acknowledge, its past failures. In accepting a heliocentric view of the universe, or its great age, or that evolution in some form has happened, they have implicitly rejected a literal or plain sense understanding of the text. In practice, if not in theory, they have followed Augustine in submitting to reason and science by adopting a non-literal reading of the text.
A second point to draw out is that in accepting these discoveries, Christians thereby lose the moral and intellectual authority to insist on a literal approach to other matters, including sexual ethics.
A third point is that cosmological assumptions implicit in the text of Genesis 1-11 are ubiquitous throughout the rest of the Bible. They permeate the New Testament as much as the Old, with the implication that just because something is written or implied in the New Testament does not mean that we will agree with it. We might not.
The implication for our topic is clear. Though the Bible is consistent in its condemnation of same-gender sex, this, in itself, is not a conclusive reason for saying we cannot ever legitimately think otherwise.
5. The major reason Christians are re-thinking the issue of same-gender sex, and, consequentially, same-sex marriage is that discoveries in the area of biology and genetics have precipitated this re-think, as have the brave testimonies of increasing numbers of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender and intersex (GLBTI) people. Although we still have a long way to go in understanding why it is that between 3 and 6% of all human populations are GLBTI, it is becoming increasingly clear that homosexuality is best understood as an orientation, which is as resistant to change as heterosexuality is in 94% to 97% of the rest of the population. For most people, homosexuality is not something they choose, and it is certainly not something they can repent of or be cured of.
This emerging understanding is new. None of the biblical writers would have been aware of this information, certainly not in these terms. Richard A. J. Gagnon, of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, marshals evidence to show that people in the ancient world were aware of entrenched homoerotic tendencies known to be resistant to change, which, perhaps uncomfortably for the conservative Gagnon, is evidence for the existence and persistence of homosexual orientation throughout history. However, what is new is our emerging understanding of the genetic and biological origins of homosexual orientation. The ancients lacked the conceptual wherewithal to differentiate, as we now can, between a homosexual and a heterosexual. As Richard B. Hays has pointed out: ‘The idea that some individuals have an inherent disposition towards same-sex erotic attraction and are therefore constitutionally “gay” is a modern idea of which there is no trace either in the NT or in any other Jewish or Christian writings in the ancient world.’  This understandable lack means that there is conceptual room to move in both plotting new ways forward and in understanding the Biblical prohibition against same-gender sex.
As I understand the relevant Biblical passages, the reason same-gender sex was prohibited was that it was seen to violate natural and God-created boundaries in perverse and damaging ways. God created males and females, and this clear distinction needed to be honoured and safeguarded. The breaching of these boundaries was evidence of degenerate and God-denying behaviour.
This makes sense of the relevant passages, but it does not fully account for the experience and emerging understanding of contemporary Christians and others. It is this new knowledge which has created scope for a re-think – as has the Bible’s open-ended dynamism, referred to above.
For reasons such as these, I, for one, have begun to rethink the previously unthinkable. The chasms over which I’ve had to jump aren’t as wide as I would once have imagined.
This has not been the experience of everyone, however, and so it might be useful, before concluding this article, to articulate some commonly urged objections to an approach like mine.
Objection 1: Such an approach undermines Biblical authority. To argue, as I have done, that the Biblical writers were wrong or, at least, not fully informed, is to undermine confidence in the authority of the Bible.
Brief response: I agree that this does raise the issue of Biblical authority. In fact, it is one of the good things about this issue; it forces Christians to do the hard work of understanding the nature and extent of Biblical authority. For example, do the doctrines of inerrancy or infallibility make sense of what we find in the Bible? Do they open up or do they obscure the Bible’s meaning and significance? I personally think the latter, but this is a discussion evangelicals need to have. I have made a few tentative suggestions for a way forward in my recently published book, A Restless Faith: Leaving fundamentalism in a quest for God. I have also been helped by Jürgen Moltmann’s Trinitarian model of inspiration, which he describes as a ‘hermeneutics from below,’ in contrast to Karl Barth’s ‘hermeneutics from above,’ but I would love to hear other suggestions.
Objection 2: It is arrogant to suggest that we might know better or more than Paul and/or the ancient Israelite legislators.
Brief response: arrogance is something we need to avoid, but it is not only a temptation to those who come to more liberal conclusions on this issue. One can be arrogant in resisting conclusions that evidence makes more and more likely, or in persisting with unsustainable ways of reading the Bible.
Moreover, it is possible, even in coming to new and stretching conclusions, to be humble in one’s approach to both the Bible and contemporary knowledge. All truth is God’s truth, and so we must be willing to submit to truth whenever we are reasonably persuaded of it. In this way, we submit to God.
Furthermore, it is not necessarily arrogant to think that we know more than Paul in some matters, just as he knew more than those who wrote before him, in very large part because of his encounter with Jesus. There are things we know he did not know.
That being said, it is still hugely important to do our very best to understand what Paul and the other Biblical writers were saying about this topic, to understand, if we can, the rationale behind the Biblical prohibitions. By doing this, we find principles that will guide us to better understandings and better practice. Even if, as a result of this investigation, we conclude that the gender divide isn’t quite as neat as was once thought, we are still likely to want to understand and honour the Biblical concern to not violate boundaries in perverse and damaging ways, which leads to one final objection that I have often heard.
Objection 3: If we allow same-sex marriage, there is nothing to prevent us from going on to allow adultery, paedophilia, bestiality or any other variation of sexual or marital activity. This, I guess, is the moral slippery slope argument.
Brief response: I can think of any number of good reasons to resist and/or abhor such practices, not least of which is the gospel itself with its inherent high valuing of human dignity and worth. As Christians, we are well served by principles of love and honour drawn from all parts of Scripture, including the passages that prohibit same-gender sex. We also have the wherewithal to observe the terrible impact of sexual aberrations including paedophilia, rape and incest; not only on victims, but perpetrators as well.
Crucial to any elaborated case for same-sex marriage is careful attention to the likely impacts on GLBTI people, as well as the wider society. One would need to be convinced that this will contribute to the good health and flourishment of everyone concerned, including children.
To draw all this together, it may be that we will need to re-think some of our cherished beliefs, about Biblical authority, for example. Accepting, or even countenancing, same-sex marriage will entail all sorts of new challenges as we come to better understand our gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender and intersex sisters and brothers, as we adjust our understandings and emotions to what will, necessarily, be a slightly different form of marriage, with its own unique challenges no doubt, but my major point is that this unsettling possibility need not be unthinkable.
Rev. Dr Keith Mascord
 7 passages appear to speak directly to the topic: Genesis 19, Judges 19, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, I Corinthians 6:9 and 1Timothy 1:10.
 They are also suggestive of what might be in the minds of Biblical writers when they prohibit same-gender sex.
 Or, at least, emasculation.
 See, for example, ‘The Literal Interpretation of Genesis’ 1:19-20; 2:9.
 I may be wrong, but it seems to me that very few, if any, Christians are consistent in following the plain sense approach, even when issues of genre are factored in. Creationists come closest. The new Principal of Moore College, Rev. Dr Mark Thompson indicated to me that he believes himself to be consistently literal, and illustrated this by resisting the conclusions of most contemporary geologists in affirming the worldwide nature of Noah’s flood, which is certainly true to a plain sense reading of Genesis 6-9. Whether Mark is right or wrong on Noah, he can with some integrity insist on a plain sense reading of other texts, including those texts that prohibit same-gender sex.
 To mention just a few examples, we are unlikely to be able to take the genealogies at the beginning of Matthew or Luke as accurate accounts of the human family tree. We are also likely to be at least quizzical about the ability of Satan to find a mountain high enough to show Jesus ‘all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour’, or about ‘stars’ falling from the sky in the Olivet Discourse prediction. Less obvious, perhaps, are New Testament references to Adam and Eve, Cain, Abel, and Noah which we are now more likely to believe are mythical characters. Their stories almost certainly contain mythical elements, some of them implying a cosmology we no longer accept, some of them added to in the New Testament, such as in the case of Noah entering the underworld to preach to the departed spirits of those who disobeyed in the days of Noah in 1 Peter 3:19, 20.
 For an interesting and poignant story to illustrate challenges faced by someone who is intersex, see: http://www.journalonline.co.uk/Magazine/57-8/1011507.aspx#.UTAiFFfLtSw This article also contains a disturbing account of how quickly patriarchy re-asserted itself thereby reversing the revolutionary gains initiated by Jesus and Paul.
 R.A.J. Gagnon, ‘The Faulty Orientation Argument of Anglican Archbishop Harper of Ireland’ in Fulcrum: Renewing the Evangelical Centre, at http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/page.cfm?ID=325, see also R.A.J. Gagnon, ‘Does the Bible Regard Same-Sex Intercourse as Intrinsically Sinful’ in R.E. Saltzman (ed), Christian Sexuality: Normative and Pastoral Principles, 2003, 106-55.
 Richard B. Hays, ‘Relations Natural and Unnatural: A Response to John Boswell’s Exegesis of Romans 1’, Journal of Religious Ethics 14/1 (1986), 200.
 For an elaboration on this, see my two sermons: ‘Homosexuality and the Old Testament’, and ‘Homosexuality and the New Testament’, at http://arestlessfaith.com.au/blog/
 See, for example, J Moltmann, Experiences in Theology: Ways and Forms of Christian Theology, 2000.
 From my admittedly brief consideration, it appears that research in this area is still in its infancy. It is too often polarised around conflicting ideologies. We do have ample evidence to show the distinctive and complementary importance of fathers and mothers in the parenting process, and of the deeply felt need of children to know who their biological parents are. As we increase our understanding of the distinctive strengths and challenges faced by GBTLI parents this will need to feed in to a sophisticated and hopefully calmer discussion of how we as a society can best meet the needs of children. It is worth noting that what research has been done is suggesting that children can thrive very nicely indeed within the present range of parenting possibilities. Variety can be deeply enriching if handled well. As grandparents, my wife and I have come to see how joyous and important that complementary role can be.
During the last couple of weeks, I have been hearing & reading stories – stories both similar and different to my own; different because the people I’ve been listening to, or reading about, appear to be wired differently to me – sexually. Unlike me, they discovered (mostly in adolescence) that they were attracted to people of their own gender.
Let me share with you just one of those stories. It is the story of a devoutly Christian man who grew up in the 50s and 60s in the Deep South of the US – in what we would describe as a fundamentalist church.
He was a bright young man – and always shone in Sunday school. He was the pride and joy of his mum and dad. He still is. He was remarkably talented and a fervent disciple of Jesus. He still is. But when he went through that sometimes scary transition called puberty, he discovered to his growing alarm that the suddenly aroused attraction of his peers towards members of the opposite sex was matched by no such attraction in him.
And so he pretended he was interested – in that way. He knew to keep his mouth closed – about what he was fast learning about himself: that he was different – in ways he knew his church disapproved of. He knew his Bible well enough to know of its apparent condemnation of homosexuality!
When, years later, he asked his fiancé to marry him, he was quite up-front with her about his fears that despite the therapy he had sought and gone through, despite the fervent prayers that God would heal him – he was scared he would still struggle in marriage with the demons of this unwelcome affliction. And yet he did marry – to a woman he loved deeply as a friend and soul-mate, who loved him deeply – and who walked with him at every step of the way as he realized his extraordinary potential as a minister of the gospel.
His journey has been quite unlike mine – sexually – but in other ways very much like mine, because his experience brought him face to face with passages like Romans 1, which we are going to look at this morning, that appear to be entirely condemning of same-sex behaviour … and even of same-sex desire … and had him wondering whether there might be another way of understanding these things. That is what we have been doing, last week and this week.
Today we conclude our two-part series on homosexuality and the Bible. Last week, we concentrated on two verses from the Old Testament book of Leviticus – two of just 3 (or 4) directly relevant passages in the Old Testament.
This morning, I will concentrate on Romans 1, which is one of just three passages directly relevant in the New Testament. Romans 1 is a crucial passage for our purposes for a number of reasons:
Firstly, it is in the New Testament, which for Christians is likely to have more weight because, as we saw last week, lots of Old Testament laws and expectations are set aside as no longer relevant or important (not eating prawns or pork, for example, or the Sabbath laws).
Secondly, Romans 1 is the only passage in all of the Bible that appears to supply some reasons (some rationale) for the Levitical prohibition of same-gender sex. The other two New Testament references (in I Corinthians and 1 Timothy) simply identify some forms of behaviour as morally unacceptable. There is no reason given for those prohibitions.
Thirdly, Romans 1 contains the only reference to female to female sexual behaviour – all other references are to men.
Fourthly, this passage is crucially relevant because, in some ways, it is so irrelevant. When you look closely, it doesn’t seem to be talking about homosexuality at all, or, if at all, only at the level of behaviour. It does not appear to be speaking to (or about) the experiences of those people whose stories I have been hearing & reading about in the last few weeks. Let me explain.
Paul argues, in Romans 1 from verse 18, that human beings, although they know God, or at least have some awareness of God, suppress that knowledge; human beings in general do this, and have always done so. And this knowing ignorance of God manifests itself in idolatry, in human beings creating idols – basically to allow themselves to do what they want. Idolatry leads to immorality of all sorts.
This is where the discussion of sex comes in. Idolatry opens the floodgates to sexual immorality in all of its perverse varieties. ‘Floodgates’ is a good analogy because God allows it, according to Paul. He opens those flood-gates as his way of punishing foolish people for exchanging the truth about God for lies.
‘Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!’
It is here that Paul introduces same-gender sexual activity:
‘And for this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.’
This passage from Romans has been used for centuries as the major basis for Christian condemnation of homosexual behaviour – men having sex with men; women engaging in sexual behaviour with women. But what makes this passage so apparently irrelevant for our purposes, is that it doesn’t seem to line up with our fast evolving understandings of homosexuality as a disposition or as a state of being.
Paul is here talking about choices; the choice to ignore God; the choice to create idols in God’s place; the choice to engage in degrading and unnatural sexual behaviour. This is a moral slippery-slope Paul is talking about – a process of degradation initiated by human choices.
But we now have every good reason to believe that homosexuality (as a disposition) is not a choice. It is, in fact, something that people would often prefer to un-choose if they could, at least up until recently. People of any disposition may choose to engage in homosexual behaviour, but as an orientation it is not something people choose.
This understanding of homosexuality is now widely accepted – even among Christians. A friend of mine sent me a book of his about sex – written from a quite conservative point of view – and this author happily acknowledged this growing consensus that this orientation is not a choice.
Nor is it something one can give up – or repent of. For years, psychologists and counsellors have offered therapy – to cure people of their homosexuality. There have been all manner of ex-gay ministries set up; some of which still operate here in Sydney – mostly run by Christians these days, it seems, because the wider medical and psychological fraternity no longer sees homosexuality as something that needs to be cured.
Increasingly, people who have been involved in these ex-gay ministries are admitting, publicly and regretfully, that these therapies don’t work, and often cause more harm than good. I was told during the week that Hillsong, here in Sydney, no longer recommends reparative treatment.
So how does this influence our reading of Romans 1 which does seem to be talking about something that could be cured; through repentance, faith and the help of the Holy Spirit?
Something that is truly a choice can be un-chosen – and so you can understand the incredible angst created by these verses for people like the man I was speaking about at the beginning of the sermon – let’s call him ‘Jack.’ For person after person I have gotten to know, the discovery of their orientation was in the context of faithful and committed belief in God and Jesus; and so disturbed were they by this discovery that they had often gone to extreme lengths to change their hearts and minds and desires … because of their belief in God and the Bible!
Theirs wasn’t a turning away from God – but to God in often desperate attempts to reach out to God in the face of what, for many, ends up being suicidal despair.
SO what did Paul mean? How can we make sense of this fact that Paul appears to be speaking past (or around) our understanding & experience of homosexuality?
I think the explanation is pretty straightforward. There are 2 related likely reasons for Paul’s condemnation of same-gender sex – that will help us resolve this cognitive dissonance.
The first is that Paul believed, in our terms, that people (all people) are naturally heterosexual and therefore are choosing to engage in same-gender sex perversely. Paul didn’t have the benefit of the distinctions we now make between heterosexual and homosexual, and so to even talk in these terms is somewhat anachronistic. But reading these verses does suggest that Paul saw this behaviour as essentially corrupt – and as he looked around the Roman world, he would have seen all sorts of examples that would have confirmed him in this view.
He would have known about drinking parties, called symposia, where male and female slaves were brought in as part of the entertainment offered. He would have known of the frequent sexual abuse of girls and boys in the households of Roman citizens, of the trade in young boys who were captured, imported, sold and then prostituted into sexual slavery. He would have known how acceptable it was in Greek and Roman society for a man to have sex with a woman, and then, for variety, to have a younger man to take the role of a woman for him.
And, as a first century Jew, Paul would have seen all this as corrupt and corrupting – as I think we would too, and especially corrupt on the assumption that all people are, by nature heterosexual, which leads on to a second (and related) reason for Paul’s condemnation of same-gender sex, and that is that it was ‘unnatural’. Notice Paul’s words in verses 26 & 27:
‘Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.’
In describing same-gender sex as unnatural, Paul had some influential allies within Greek and Roman intellectual circles. Plato, for example, described male to male and female to female sexual relations as ‘contrary to nature’.
Scholars have pointed out that much of this material from Romans 1 reflects (sometimes word for word) the writings of contemporary Stoic philosophers including Seneca who believed that an understanding of nature was the key to ethics; and that if something was contrary to nature it was wrong.
But for Paul, I think we can safely say, much more influential than contemporary ethical writings, was his knowledge of, and commitment to, the words of Leviticus, chapters 18 and 20 that we looked at last week. Paul understood from his Hebrew Scriptures that God, in creating the world, separated things into kinds that need to remain separate and distinct. He separated male from female, giving to each a distinctive and complementary role, both socially and sexually.
The gender divide is woven into the very fabric of nature, according to Paul’s likely understanding, and so any confusion of this order is a violation of God’s creative intentions. And it is also likely to have adverse personal and social implications … the demeaning of men for example. Paul would have shared his culture’s aversion for a type of sex that was not only destructive, but also often violent and abusive – which it certainly was in Greek and Roman society.
SO, that is what Paul is likely to have thought about same-gender sex. It makes sense! It makes sense of what he writes. It makes sense of his experience.
But it still leaves us with our problem that what Paul wrote doesn’t quite make sense of our experience and new understandings.
We now know things about same-gender sexual orientation (and practice) that Paul simply would not have understood. How could he? We are only just coming to understand these things ourselves!
Which again raises the really important question: do these new understandings make a difference, or, more broadly still, are we at liberty to modify our understanding of things we read in the Bible on the basis of new knowledge?
I think we can and must, and are not prevented from doing this because the Bible itself engages in this process, as has the church over the years.
That is what I was trying to argue in my Sydney Morning Herald piece where I pointed out that the Christian church, in most of its varieties at least, has long since adjusted to scientific advances in areas of geology, biology and physics. We have very good reason to question the facticity of the Noah Flood story, for example, and I suggested we might need to do the same thing with homosexuality.
Not everyone was persuaded by this argument (as you might know)! A friend of mine rang me up the other day and asked me, ‘Keith, tell me again the link between Noah’s Flood and homosexuality.’
There are some obvious links, actually, with some serious category violations involved in the lead up to the Flood – humans having sex with angels and producing giants, to be precise! But the hermeneutical link is this: just as we don’t now accept a Biblical cosmology (or cosmologies) in matters of geology and astrophysics, we also have reason to question Biblical cosmology in the area of what is considered ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural.’ This matter of what is ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ is also an aspect of cosmology; it is how we understand nature.
There has been a shift, and we have all been part of it. And it has happened fast, as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender and intersex people have mustered the courage to tell their stories – people who are our brothers and sisters, and sons and daughters; between 3 and 6% of our population (maybe more); as many as three times as many people than are red-headed; about 1 in 20 people you walk past in the street or work with every day … are gay or lesbian or bi-sexual or transgender or intesex.
We now know that for most people this is not the result of choosing idolatry over God – though promiscuous and disordered sexuality could well be, and sometimes is … though we also now have the tragic phenomena of GLBTI people walking away from churches (or never wanting to enter one) – because of the misunderstanding and hatred (sometimes) they experience there – of people who because of that rejection and pain, feel they have no choice but to throw in their faith altogether!
That is not Paul’s fault – it is our fault as Christians – for our lack of love; our lack of effort to understand; our lack of courage to stand by and with our brothers and sisters, and sons and daughters who are not heterosexual; for clinging unreasonably, maybe, to theologies and ways of reading the Bible that don’t work. We have some repenting to do – that is for sure! And we certainly have the capacity for that!
What is the way forward here?
We do all need to think this through; to not just accept what I am saying, but to go away and think and pray about it – to do some research and talk to some people – especially those most vitally concerned. We might, after all of our thinking and praying, still think that the right thing to do if we are gay or lesbian or bisexual is to not ever have sex.
Henry Nouwen was a gay man who decided (on the basis of his understanding of Scripture) that he needed to remain celibate, and he was fully aware of the cost. He wrote this about sexual intimacy and our longing for it:
‘Our sexuality reveals to us our enormous yearning for communion. The desires of our body – to be touched, embraced and safely held – belong to the deepest longings of the heart, and are very concrete signs of our search for oneness.’
He felt he couldn’t have that – and we need to respect and support those who think the same – whether they are gay, lesbian or straight.
But I think we also need to respect those of our brothers and sisters who argue that on this issue, we have liberty to follow the church’s often slow, painful and disputed rejection of slavery and gender roles; who believe that we can and must move on this as well – for the sake of Jack and so many like him. I have called him Jack, but his real name is Gene, Gene Robinson – the gay bishop of New Hampshire.
In the days since his Diocese chose him as their bishop – because of his extraordinary pastoral and other gifts – he received frequent death-threats and constant vilification from fellow-bishops and Christians world-wide, but he believed (and still believes) that he was doing the right thing – a bit like a Luther, I guess, taking on the whole church, a bit like the Sydney Anglican Church in its radical intentions to go against world-wide Anglican opinion and custom by introducing lay-presidency – because they believed it to be God’s will.
Gene Robinson went through all the pain of trying to shed his homosexuality; including the ultimately futile and damaging effort to maintain a marriage – which, thankfully, ended amicably and peacefully, for the deep benefit of both. Within three years of their separation, both had remarried, in Gene’s case (once New Hampshire allowed same-sex marriage) to his present partner Mark, whom he met 2 ½ years after he and his wife divorced.
In his recently published book, God Believes in Love (which has back-cover reviews from Barack Obama and Bishop Desmond Tutu, interestingly, maybe) Robinson writes these words about how he felt when he entered into the blessings of marriage:
‘For the first time in my life, my heart and my body felt in harmony. For the first time, I was able to express my love for someone through my body. In a way I had never before experienced, I understood what the prayer book means when it describes marriage as a union “in heart, body and mind.” I experienced a wholeness and integration between body and spirit I had only dreamed about. I remember thinking, “So this is what all the fuss is about! No wonder people like – and hallow – this!”’
I don’t know where your own journey has brought you on this broad issue of homosexuality. It may be that you simply can’t accept this experience of Gene Robinson’s as legitimate or moral or wise – in light of your understanding of the Scriptures and of life. I respect that. But hopefully, some of the major issues involved in coming to a mind on this have been at least raised in these two sermons.
Let the dialogue and the prayer and the repenting continue. Amen.
 I Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10
 Homosexuality is defined in Wikipedia as ‘romantic or sexual attraction or behavior between members of the same sex or gender. As an orientation, homosexuality refers to an enduring pattern of or disposition to experience sexual, affectionate, or romantic attractions primarily or exclusively to people of the same sex; it also refers to an individual’s sense of personal and social identity based on those attractions, behaviors expressing them, and membership in a community of others who share them.’
 In the past 25 years, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Medical Association have changed their definition of homosexuality to that of a ‘normal variant’ (like being left handed) rather than as a disease.
 John Smid, for example, resigned as Executive Director of Love in Action in 2008. Love In Action was the flagship ex-gay ministry of Exodus International, which shut its residential program in 2007. John now distances himself from the message he preached for years that ‘change is possible’. He now believes sex orientation is unchangeable, and goes so far as to say that he has ‘never met a man who experienced a change from homosexual to heterosexual.
 It was a Hungarian writer and journalist, Karl Maria Kertbeny (1824-1882), who coined the term ‘homosexual’ in 1869 in his campaign against the German sodomy laws. The term ‘homosexuality’ was coined in the late 19th century by a German psychologist, Karoly Maria Benkert.
 Plato, Laws 1.2 (636 BC) cited in Michael Bird and Sarah Harris: ‘Paul’s Jewish View of Sexuality in Romans 1: 26-27, in Michael Bird and Gordon Preece (eds), Sexegesis: An Evangelical Response to Five Uneasy Pieces on Homosexuality, (Sydney: Anglican Press Australia, 2012), 91.
 Note however that what was depicted as wrong (or contrary to nature) was passionate and uncontrolled sex (reflected in Paul’s description), with sexual behaviour needing to be cool-headed and rational.
 We must always be careful that our theologies, and the hermeneutics that crucially determine their shape and content, are always receptive to truth wherever it is found. It is possible to be negligent, and even immoral, in holding fast to methodologies and theologies that have become unsustainable, the doctrine of inerrancy, for example, especially when adherence to those methodologies and theologies can have such damaging impacts on human lives, as, arguably, is happening currently with the issue of homosexuality.
 Henry Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a secular world, 70.
 Gene Robinson, his wife and parents feature in a powerful and relevant documentary ‘For the Bible Tells Me So’ now on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=0Ihzwo4ygxk#!
 Gene Robinson, God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage, New York: Alfred A Knope, 2012, 12, 13.
I would like, in this and next week’s sermon, to speak about the highly fraught subject of homosexuality. Necessarily, I will need to be selective and brief, because of the obvious time constraints, although I am somewhat helped by the fact that the Bible doesn’t say that much about homosexuality, hardly anything at all, in fact. 
That makes my task a little easier, though the topic is huge. In this sermon, I want to look at the Jewish Scriptures (known to Christians as the Old Testament); and next week I will consider some verses from the New Testament.
I will concentrate today, almost exclusively, on two verses from the OT book of Leviticus, not a book that we read in church that often, but an important book for our purposes because it contains two seemingly unambiguous verses prohibiting sex between a man and another man.
The first is Leviticus 18:22:
‘You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination’, (NRSV)
The second is Leviticus 20:13:
‘If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.’
Those are two pretty straightforward verses – as clear a prohibition of homosexual practice as anywhere in all the Scriptures, and, arguably, the basis for later prohibitions.
And just in case we haven’t quite got the seriousness of this prohibition, Leviticus 20 treats this as a capital offence requiring the death penalty. Both verses describe this activity as ‘an abomination,’ which is a strong word of disapproval, the root meaning of which is ‘to abhor’ or ‘to detest.’
What do we make of these verses? What should do with them in a world that is fast coming to accept homosexual practice as acceptable – to the point that Barack Obama can winningly come out in favour of same-sex marriage – a seemingly risky thing to do in a place like the US, but most pundits agree it contributed significantly to his re-election.
What do we do with these verses?
One approach is to say, ‘Well too bad that society has gone a different way on this. It has always been the way. In fact, these prohibitions were articulated in a context where homosexual practice was widely accepted – and God said NO.’ We have no room to move on this.
It may be that at the end of these two sermons we come to that same conclusion. There is a lot going for this approach – and a lot at stake in going a different way.
These words purport to be the very words of God – spoken in the immediate aftermath of God’s rescue of the people of Israel from Egypt. They are still within sight of Sinai – being given instructions about what sort of nation they will be – with God himself the sole legislator of what they will do & who they will be.
There is to be no sex between males. It is an abomination.
There doesn’t seem to be much room to move on this one – which goes a long way to explaining the vehemence of opposition to any watering down of these verses, any attempt to side-step their implications. And this is not just a matter of sex for many Christians, including Archbishop Peter, who sees this as primarily an issue of authority; an important test-case for whether we believe and submit to the Bible as the supreme authority in matters of faith and life.
Do we have any room to move on this as Christians? Maybe!
Some have argued that these verses from Leviticus – although they seem so absolute on first reading – are set in a context of all sorts of laws we no longer adhere to as Christians. There are laws about not eating pork. We eat pork. There are laws about not mixing linen and wool in the garments we make. We mix all sorts of fabrics together. There are laws about not eating sea creatures that don’t have fins or scales – prawns, for example. We eat prawns.
There are all sorts of ceremonial laws – food laws and purity laws – which we no longer observe, despite the fact that in Leviticus and elsewhere in the Old Testament these activities are considered ‘an abomination’ – that word again!
And so it is not quite so simple as to say, ‘God says it’ or ‘the Bible says it’, therefore we must do it, or not do it.’
There are those who seek to get around these prohibitions by arguing that we Christians are no longer under law, but under grace – and therefore we don’t have to take notice of any of these laws.
That’s not such a good move. As we are about to see, included among these laws from Leviticus are laws against adultery, against incest, against child sacrifice and bestiality. I don’t know too many people who think we should set these aside, or that these laws don’t have continuing purchase; certainly the principles that underlie them do!
One of the disappointing things about this debate – occurring within society and church – is that people run too quickly to solutions that are possible, but in some cases far-fetched – and unhelpful. We all have to do the hard work – not just of listening to each other, but also to texts like these two from Leviticus.
So let’s now have a go at doing that … listening a little more closely to these texts.
First of all, what do the verses themselves mean? Or, more specifically, what are they likely to have meant when first written down and included in this book of Leviticus? Leviticus 18:22 says, ‘You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination’, (NRSV). More literally still, the verse reads ‘And with (or at) a male you shall not lie the lyings of a woman: it is abhorrent.’
The choice of Hebrew words suggests something that is done to a person or at a person; not so much ‘with’ as ‘at’ – something you might do to someone. There is no hint of this being an expression of love or intimacy or mutuality.
This is an action – essentially penetrative sex. The word ‘to lie with’ has the same connotation as it has for us. It means having sex – and sex in the ancient world was generally understood as intercourse.
The writer could have written ‘a male shouldn’t lie with a male – full stop’; but he added ‘with the lyings of a woman’ probably to make it crystal clear that what is on view here is a male having sex with a male in the same manner as he would have sex with a woman; though with an obvious anatomical variation involved.
Leviticus 20 verse 13 specifies penalties, not just for the active partner in such behaviour, but the passive or receptive partner as well. Both are to be put to death.
Why so? Well the context provides a number of clues.
Chapter 18 begins with a note of promise and exhortations to obedience and to the exclusive worship of Yahweh – and ends with a threat of curse and exile should the people make themselves impure by engaging in practices such as male to male intercourse.
In the middle of the chapter is a list of prohibited actions all of which are described as abhorrent or as an abomination at the end of the chapter. Those prohibited actions are:
· having sex with one’s next of kin (verses 7-18);
· having sex with one’s wife when she is menstruating (verse 19);
· having sex with one’s neighbour’s wife (verse 20);
· having sex with a male (Verse 22);
· having sex with an animal (verse 23).
Chapter 20 also contains a list of prohibited actions. They are not all about sex, but we will restrict ourselves to those. The list is a little longer and more detailed. Prohibited actions include:
· a man having sex with his neighbour’s wife (verse 10);
· a man having sex with his father’s wife (verse 11);
· a man having sex with his daughter-in-law (verse 12);
· a man having sex with a man (verse 13);
· a man having sex with a mother and her daughter (verse 14);
· a man having sex with an animal (verse 15);
· a woman having sex with an animal (verse 16).
There are a few things to notice from these lists. You might notice that almost all the prohibitions are addressed to men – reflecting the patriarchal nature of the society into which these instructions were given. These are addressed mostly to those understood to be the likely initiators – the ones with the overwhelming power and responsibility in relationships of these sorts.
You may have noticed that women are not prohibited from having sex with each other. Maybe that is significant; maybe not. Possibly those actions weren’t considered to be sex.
One thing you won’t have missed is that most of these actions, if not all, we would disapprove of – in most cases quite strongly – and rightly so!
The offences mentioned here appear to increase in seriousness – in both lists – with almost all of them requiring the death penalty.
It kind of raises the question, doesn’t it, if we want to be obedient to the spirit and letter of these words – whether we should be advocating for the death penalty in such cases. Even if we can’t do that in a society like ours, is that what we think is appropriate and right – given these words?
Some people would think so. In some parts of the world it still happens that people are executed for being homosexual. Do we agree with such penalties? It is a serious question – and it nicely raises the question facing us this morning, ‘What do we make of these verses?
How do we understand and apply them in a 21st century world?
Why did the writers of Leviticus – those who drew these instructions together into a complete manuscript of instructions, which now lies at the centre of the Torah – why did they include sex between men in their list of sexual offences requiring the death penalty?
What was their rationale? Why did they think it wrong?
One suggestion – which I think has a lot going for it – is it deviated (like all the other offences) from the Biblical ideal of sex found in Genesis 1 & 2, sex between a man and his wife.
That certainly makes some sense of these passages, but it is limited by the fact that the Bible does acknowledge the existence of exceptions to this idealized picture – that are not considered abhorrent or deserving of death; having more than one wife, for example, and, in some cases, for those who could afford it, a concubine. There was also the highly encouraged custom of Levirate marriage, as in the story of Ruth & Boaz, where sex with a next of kin was acceptable, in fact necessary, to carry on the husband’s line.
The Bible itself allows for exceptions to these rules. They are not absolute, at least in all cases, or necessarily. Having said that, it is clear enough that Leviticus does rule out sex between a man & another man. The only forms of acceptable sex are between a man and a woman (or women). Why is that?
I have come across two understandings that make sense to me – two complementary ways to understand why same-gender sex was considered abhorrent.
The first of these two understandings is that such behaviour is a threat to the very order of creation in that it confounds the gender divide.
In Genesis 1, God is described as bringing order out of disorder. He separates day from night; land from sea; sea animals from land animals and from animals that fly above the earth. God as Creator separates things that need to stay separate. Parents mustn’t mix sexually with children (in what we describe as incest); humans shouldn’t mix sexually with animals (bestiality). Women and men are made to mix sexually – with each other – not with someone of their own gender. Theirs is a complementary unity – with the female created for the man who is her master – she his property in the world of that day.
The gender divide (according to this way of thinking) is woven into the very fabric of nature as God has devised it; and so any confusion of this order is a violation of God’s creative intentions. Because male to male sexual relations involve at least one party in assuming the receptive role of a woman, it confuses these categories; a male is forced to act like a woman – and this is perverse.
A second rationale (related to the first) is that when categories are blurred, when things that are separated are joined, creation begins to disintegrate; order descends into disorder, and the threat of chaos becomes real. There is a way of life and there is a way of death – and to confuse categories is to go the way of death, individually, socially and creationally.
At the end of Leviticus 18 is a graphic description of the Promised Land vomiting out its original occupants because of their abominable practices which becomes a warning to the Israelites not to follow suit and engage in category-bending and therefore defiling behaviour.
Sex between men, according to this way of understanding, doesn’t just bend categories, it is an essentially violent and destructive act. In the world of these instructions, being penetrated by another male was the height of disgrace; an act often designed to humiliate.
It is not accidental that in the only story in the whole of the Bible that describes same-gender sex (or, at least, threatened same-gender sex) – the story of Sodom – violent and deliberately humiliating sex is on view. Here is the story of a society that has become degenerate – sexually and in every way. It is not a pretty picture. But it does illustrate the attitude of the Biblical writers to same-gender sex.
Does all this help us? I think it does. Does it help to negotiate a way forward for us in our time and space?’ I think it does – or it does for me – in two ways:
Firstly, I think we can acknowledge that there are things about this way of thinking that we would want to go along with – that make good sense.
There are things we do as humans that diminish us and humiliate others. There are boundaries that need to be put in place to protect us and others. There is behaviour that dehumanizes and degrades – including paedophilia, bestially and rape – and societies that give themselves to such behaviour do disintegrate and become ugly. These passages from Leviticus remind us of this sad possibility.
But there is a second way in which this understanding of the passages helps us, and that is that tells us that in some ways we have moved on to new and better understandings of what is good and acceptable human behaviour.
We have left behind (or keep trying to leave behind) the highly stratified way of organising society implicit (and sometimes explicit) in these and surrounding instructions – with men in charge at the top; with women (and children and slaves) underneath – with next to no rights and next to no power.
We have become more aware of the potential for abuse of power when the power differential is so heavily weighted in favour of men – as it was in all ancient civilisations, including Israel, where, as we have noted, women were considered the property of men.
We no longer think it such a shocking thing for a man to be like a woman in one way or another – in fact we celebrate such unusual sensitivity. We have become rightly critical of attitudes and institutions that assume (or enshrine) the inferiority of women; or that there is such a thing as ‘a woman’s place.’
We have, in other words, dispensed with patriarchy – and, at least most of us, were cheering when the Prime Minister recently put her opposite number to the sword on the issue of misogyny.
We have also become more comfortable with difference – because, in actual fact, the world is filled with difference. We are not all the same. Men are not all the same. Women are not all the same.
The sex & gender divide is much more porous and fuzzy than maybe we once thought – with as many as 1.9% of people born with bodily characteristics that are male and female – people referred to as Intersex, some of whom are also lesbian or gay or bi-sexual or transgender – with all sorts of variations along what is more a continuum than a binary arrangement. Under the impact of evolutionary theory we have come to see that human nature, including sexuality, is not so much fixed as dynamic, varied and variable.
What do we make of all this? What impact does this have on our reading of the two verses from Leviticus?
In short, we need (I think) to be open to the possibility that understandings can and do change, and sometimes they change for the better. The Levitical writers believed, I am sure, that they were representing the will of God for their people and for that time, so much so that they had these instructions come from the very mouth of God.
But understandings do change, even within & throughout the Bible. Jesus felt able to discard the purity laws of the Old Testament – opening up for us the delight of eating prawns and pork. He critiqued contemporary expressions of patriarchy – setting in train a process that would see it so modified that it would become irrelevant – which I believe it now is.
Living as we do in a non-stratified world opens the way for a re-thinking of the unstoppable love and affection that develops between all people; where being somewhat like a woman and something like a man does not represent a violation of the natural order, but simply another of its fascinating variations – filled with potential for intimacy, love and commitment – for the enrichment of society, not its dissolution or destruction.
SO, it may be that there is a way forward on this matter of homosexuality after all! Maybe so! I hope so!! For more on this exciting, perhaps scary journey [read the follow-up sermon where] we look at what the New Testament has to say on this issue.
 Just seven verses appear to speak directly to the topic: the first two in Genesis 19; the story of Sodom and its literary echo in Judges 19; the third and fourth in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13; the fifth in Romans 1:26-27; the sixth & seventh in I Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10. Clearly, there is much else said of relevance, but these 7 passages comment directly on the topic, or appear, at first sight, to.
 See, for example, Lev 11:7-8; Isaiah 66:17; Deut 14:1-29; Deut 22:11; Lev 11:10-19 (which includes, a long list of birds that are unclean – the eating of which is an abomination). For other examples of behaviour described using the Hebrew word translated ‘abomination’: Examples of abhorrent practices in Leviticus – using the Hebrew word translated ‘abomination’: Lev 7:18: eating the flesh of a peace offering on the third day; Lev 11:41: Every swarming thing; Lev 11:42: Whatever goes on its belly, and whatever goes on all fours, or whatever has many feet.
 In attempting to listen carefully and respectfully to these texts, I have been helped by Kathy Smith’s chapter, ‘The Culpability of Sexual Offence: Understanding Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 in Context’, in Michael Bird and Gordon Preece (eds), Sexegesis: An Evangelical Response to Five Uneasy Pieces on Homosexuality, (Sydney: Anglican Press Australia, 2012). In preparing these sermons, the interchange between contributors to this book and contributors to Five Uneasy Pieces: Essays on Scripture and Sexuality, (Adelaide: AFT Theology, 2011) has been instructive and helpful.
 The phrase ‘the lying of a male’ (miskav zakhar) is found in the Book of Numbers. Women who know the lyings of a man are experienced in intercourse. The lyings of a woman is likely to mean what a man experiences in intercourse with a woman, that is the engulfment of the penis, Rabbi Steven Greenberg, Wrestling with God & Men, Wisconsin: Wisconsin Press, 2004, 80.
 Greenberg notes that the NT takes its language directly from Greek sexual typologies in referring to arsenokoitai – who enjoyed penetrating their sexual partners, and malakoi who enjoyed being penetrated.
 In Uganda, at this very moment, its Parliament is about to pass a law that may carry the death penalty for homosexuality. I received an e-mail during the week asking me to sign a petition against this proposal.
 Two people I have been especially helped by are a Jewish Rabbi Steven Greenberg (cited above) and Philip Peter Jenson, Graded Holiness (JSOTSup 106; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992); cited in Debarah L. Ellens; Women in the Sex Texts of Leviticus and Deuteronomy: A Comparative Conceptual Analysis, New York: T&T Clark, 2008.
 Note that the prohibition against sex with one’s menstruating wife appears to have its rationale in the desire to ceremonially avoid the symbols of death – including blood.
 Leviticus contains law pertaining to slaves suggesting their relative lack of worth, for example, Leviticus 19:20, where the man who has sex with a betrothed slave girl is simply fined – because she is not a free woman. There is a similar example in Exodus where a slave owner is punished if he beats a slave to death, but not punished if the slave recovers after a few days.
 Cultures have existed and still exist that acknowledge this diversity – and even celebrateA Sydney Morning Herald article dated August 2012, noted the existence of ancient burial grounds demarcating plots for ‘third’, possibly even ‘fourth’ and ‘fifth’ sexes. It also notes documentation of more than 100 Native American tribes of their acceptance of ‘two-spirit’ people - classed as neither male nor female.
 Biblical scholars mostly agree that the final editors, if not composers of Leviticus were writing during or immediately after the Judaic exile in the 6th or 5th centuries BCE reflecting the realities of that time.
I was interested to read Archbishop Peter Jensen’s recent Opinion Piece in the Sydney Morning Herald (27 August 2012). It struck me as a very gentle, considered and courageous article, certainly in the light of peoples’ responses to it. The discussion it provoked has been massive.
I’ve been surprised by the vehemence of reactions to it – mostly ranging from rolled-eyed indifference to outright hostility. I’ve wondered why the reaction has been so strong and so strongly negative. Of the 1,000 or so responses on the SMH web site, most have been negative. Peter has certainly touched a nerve. Why so? Here are some thoughts.
1. There are some obvious and probably predictable problems with the word ‘submit’ – which is being suggested for use in a Sydney-created marriage service. The word has all sorts of unfortunate connotations, some of them sexual, most of them demeaning in a contemporary setting. The idea that a woman should ‘submit’ to a man, simply because he is a man, is objectionable in a context where feminist assumptions are now ubiquitous.
The Oxford Dictionary defines submission as ‘the action of accepting or yielding to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person.’ Submission to authority is certainly on view in Biblical uses of the word. James Hurley, author of Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective (1981), notes that ‘each of the more than forty New Testament uses of the verb (hypotasso) carries an overtone of authority and subjection or submission to it. The use of the verb necessarily carries with it a concept of exercising or yielding to authority.’ 142. People are no longer comfortable with the idea that this sort of authority relationship should exist within a marriage.
2. Most Australians, including most or many Australian Christians, have rejected patriarchy as their preferred way to understand marriage. They are egalitarian by conviction and practice, which goes a long way to explaining their reaction to this recycled and slightly modified marriage service. Peter is right to point out that the new service is essentially the same as one used for decades in the Australian Prayer Book, though it is interesting that for all of those decades few couples would have chosen to go with it. In my own experience of conducting weddings over almost 30 years, I can only remember one or two couples who have chosen the First Order Marriage Service with its promise by the bride to ‘obey’ her husband. The tide of patriarchy has long since run out.
3. A third and related reason for the vehemence of reaction to Sydney Anglicanism’s proposed new marriage service is that patriarchy isn’t something people want to go back to, for all sorts of good reasons, including the following:
3.1 Few people actually practice a patriarchal model of marriage – even if they have an in-principle acceptance of patriarchy. For two thirds of my married life, I believed in male ‘headship’ in family and church. I probably would have been happy for Judy to say those words, ‘I promise to submit to you, as you submit to Christ.’ Perhaps I was a poor exponent of patriarchy or especially blessed with a competent and healthily assertive wife, but I can’t think of even one instance in 35 years of marriage where it has made any sense at all for Judy to obey or submit to my authority. The concept of female submission in marriage, even when I accepted it in theory, made not the slightest difference to what was a strong and co-operative marriage relationship. And my story seems to be duplicated in the experience of nearly every Christian couple I have spoken to about this.
3.2 For the concept to have meaning there must surely be a significant number and frequency of examples where the wife submits and the husband exercises his authority. Though rarely, I have witnessed operational examples of patriarchy, where the husband does assert himself and/or where the wife submits. Sometimes those have happened within happy marriages, but more often than not those sorts of actions have undermined or created a challenge to marital happiness. These personal observations are born out by studies comparing patriarchal and egalitarian marriages.
Dr Alan Craddock has drawn my attention to a number of studies (below) which have consistently suggested that egalitarian relationships have higher levels of couple satisfaction and lower rates of conflict and violence.
Antill, J., Cotton,S., & Tindale,S. (1983). Egalitarian or Traditional: Correlates of the perception of an ideal marriage. Australian Journal of Psychology, 35, 245-257.
Bowen,G.L. (1989). Marital sex role incongruence and marital adjustment. Journal of Family Issues, 10, 409-415.
Bowen,G.L., & Orthner,D.K. (1983). Sex role congruency and marital quality. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 45, 223-230.
Brown,N. (2002). Happy marriages. 20 Years of Research at PennsylvaniaStateUniversity, 23 (1). Online at www.rps.psu.edu/0201/happy.html
Coleman, D. H., & Straus, M. A. (1988). Marital power, conflict, and violence in a nationally representative sample of American couples. Violence and Victims, 1, 141–157.
Craddock, A.E. (1980). The effect of incongruent marital role expectations upon couples’ degree of role consensus in the first year of marriage. Australian Journal of Psychology, 32,117-125.
Craddock, A.E. (1983). Correlations between marital role expectations and relationship satisfaction among engaged couples. Australian Journal of Sex, Marriage & Family, 4, 33-46.
Craddock, A.E. (1998). Attitudinal and structural differences between satisfied and dissatisfied married and cohabiting couples. Australian Journal of Psychology, 50, 83-88.
Li,J.T., & Caldwell,R.A. (1987). Magnitude and directional effects of marital sex role incongruence on marital adjustment. Journal of Family Issues, 8, 97-110.
Olson ,D.H,. & Olson,A (2000). Empowering Couples: Building On Your Strengths.Minneapolis: Life Innovations.
There does seem to be no good reason to re-introduce or persist with patriarchy. The only reason I can think of is that the Bible mandates it, which is why the Archbishop and others are advocating the retention of patriarchy. But does the Bible mandate patriarchy?
4. There are two major arenas within which a decision needs to be made about whether this is the case; the first is exegetical, the second hermeneutical. Exegesis will tell you (to some degree of probability) what the relevant Biblical texts say and mean. Hermeneutics will determine what to make of this meaning, including what it means for us.
One thing I think is (relatively) clear, and that is that the Biblical writers accepted and/or assumed patriarchy as the way marriages operate. Patriarchy was a given within the lifetimes of the Biblical writers. I agree with Scott Higgins, who, in an excellent article on this issue (‘Paul was no feminist, but his gospel is’- www.scottjhiggins.com), points out, ‘The early Christians lived in a patriarchal social system that saw a man at the head of a household, with his wife, children and slaves all in a subservient relationship to him.’
Patriarchy was assumed as a cultural given, in the same sort of way as ancient cosmological beliefs were assumed. However, our society is no longer patriarchal, at least in its assumptions. The key issue is not whether the Bible is patriarchal, but whether the Bible mandates or necessitates the retention of patriarchy.
I don’t believe it does. A useful exercise, if you are wanting to think this through, is to read through all the relevant texts, asking yourself this question, ‘Are the Biblical writers simply assuming patriarchy, and then, in the case of the New Testament writers, regulating it according to gospel principles OR are they arguing that this accepted marriage custom is designed and intended by God to exist for all time?’
When you ask the question in those terms, the answer is not straightforward. It is at this point that exegesis and hermeneutics coalesce. Most evangelicals are comfortable with the idea that the Bible is ancient and that its writers held assumptions we no longer share. Patriarchy could well be one of those.
The only credible obstacle to this live possibility is the argument that the Scriptures mandate patriarchy. A major problem with this argument is that it depends crucially on a small (in fact tiny) number of hotly contested Biblical passages; most importantly 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15. These passages can be read as implying that male-female role distinctions are grounded in creation. This is a possible reading of those texts, but by no means is it the only or the best reading. I refer you to Scott Higgins’ excellent article for a fuller, but still brief discussion.
My own opinion is that it is impossible to know for sure whether these texts are appealing to or seeking to establish an order of creation. It is just as possible, and possibly more likely, that these passages are local and time bound in their application, with the Genesis passages being used illustratively to make very particular points. Exegesis is not decisive in other words.
5. This takes us back to broader hermeneutical considerations – and to a possibility that Scott Higgins argues to, which I also suggest in A Restless Faith, and that is that the Biblical writers, although they assume patriarchy, also subvert it by applying gospel principles to its operation. To quote from A Restless Faith:
‘Patriarchy comes under significant attack in the ministry of Jesus, or at least earlier expressions of it do. Women are given the right to divorce their husbands (Mark 10:12). Jesus treats women with great respect, and readily accepts them as his disciples. He significantly elevates their status and role. Jesus’ example is followed by his apostles, including Paul. Paul may not have gone all the way towards dismantling patriarchy. However, one could argue that the trajectory established by Jesus and honoured by Paul was of such a nature that patriarchy, like slavery, can reasonably be set aside, especially in a world where women have come to show themselves capable of holding their own at all levels of human endeavour.’ 120
6. The reason that patriarchy doesn’t seem to work, or to have practical purchase, in happily functioning Christian marriages is that the gospel has made it irrelevant. Efforts to make it relevant necessarily involve some form of restriction (whether voluntary or not) to female agency; some loss of power. That, I think, is whySydneyhas reacted so angrily to Archbishop Peter’s irenic effort to argue for submission. It is not somethingSydneywants. It is not something that most of Sydney’s Christians want, nor even most of Sydney’s Anglican Christians – I would guess.
I do, however, really like what Peter says towards the end of his Opinion Piece. He challenges us all, detractors and supporters alike, to ‘engage in a serious and respectful debate about marriage and about the responsibilities of the men and women who become husbands and wives.’ This blog piece is one effort to meet this challenge.
7 September 2012
What follows is a version of a sermon I have recently preached: am interested in your feedback, suggestions, critique:
In the first few verses of Ephesians 4, Paul issues a challenge to his readers – to work towards maintaining unity. He writes: I … the prisoner of the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Paul says, ‘I beg you … to make every effort …’
This isn’t going to be easy, in other words. You will face significant challenges. And those challenges will come entirely from within your community of faith. The humility we are to display is towards each other … along with the gentleness, and the patience, and the love (all these things that are required if we are to be united). Paul is a realist. He recognizes – what we have probably also found – that the hardest people to get on with (too often) are those closest to us in Christian faith.
So how are we to do this? How can we, how should we ‘maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace?
There are a couple of approaches we could take. One way to maintain unity is to close ranks and to keep out those who think differently to us. We could enforce unity by drawing up a list of beliefs that will define our unity and exclude those who don’t believe like us. That, essentially, is the way of fundamentalism. The early fundamentalists in the US came up with a list of fundamental beliefs: (i) the verbal inerrancy of Scripture, (ii) the deity of Christ (including his virgin birth), (iii) the penal substitutionary atonement, (iv) the bodily resurrection of Jesus and (v) his second coming.
Quite reasonably, the early fundamentalists asked, ‘What is at the core of our faith without which we wouldn’t have Christian faith?’ It is a question Marcus Borg asks in his book, The Heart of Christianity. What is the essence of our faith?
Fundamentalism came up with a series of beliefs. Over time, those beliefs got added to, as people said, ‘We need this as well … and this … to stop the erosion of Christian faith.’ Fundamentalism quickly became sectarian and, at its worst, cultish, as groups vied with each other to become more and more ‘Biblical’, and therefore most truly Christian. Fundamentalism works by putting up boundaries and then policing those boundaries – so that people don’t stray, so that unacceptable people are kept out.
That is one approach, but I don’t think it squares with what this passage envisages. There is a better way. This passage is a call to make every effort even with those people with whom we disagree, to be united; not to splinter into self-protective groups, but to engage in humble, gentle, patient, loving effort to be peacefully united.
It is the harder way. It is easier to dismiss than to dialogue. It takes courage to listen and engage with those with whom we differ.
Later in this passage, Paul talks about being ‘tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine.’ Doctrinal differences were already making their presence felt way back then in the early days of the Christian story. We have got them now in bucket loads – and one of the things I admire about the Sydney Anglican Church is its passion for doctrinal correctness, its passion to not be ‘tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine.’
But even in this there are dangers – the danger of thinking you’ve got it right and don’t need to listen to those who might see it differently. There is a movement that has emerged in the Diocese over the last few years, with roots going further back, that dubs itself ‘hard evangelicalism.’ It is ‘hard’ because it is uncompromising. It is not soft in resisting the multiple perceived errors of Pentecostalism and feminism and liberalism … and now atheism and the push for same-sex marriage.
It is hard and tough against perceived error – but the terrible irony is that in so strongly reacting against every conceivable mistake made by others, it runs the risk, and, one might argue, has fallen into the trap, of becoming an essentially negative and reactionary form of Christianity … without being aware of its own shortcomings; without being open to critique, either self-critique or the critique of others.
Not that it is easy to be open to critique. It isn’t. We humans are normally better at criticising than in accepting critique.
As you know, I have written a book that some of you have read. It is sub-titled Leaving Fundamentalism in a Quest for God. My nurturing in the faith was in North American style fundamentalism – in a very literalistic, black and white type of Christianity. And I have come to see what I think are some of its great weaknesses (along with strengths), but in writing down what is essentially a friendly and well-meant critique, I have attracted some fire.
Not long after the book was published, I began e-mail correspondence with an older Christian man (an independent Baptist) who, I think, at the beginning, was trying to understand where I was coming from. He warmed to the descriptions of my mum and dad, both now deceased, who through all of their lives were conservative in their Christian beliefs. But he started to get aggressive when I wouldn’t (and couldn’t) agree with him on certain things … and, at one point, he wrote, ‘Your dad would be disappointed in you.’
That really hurt. He ended up saying, ‘Ring me on your death bed, and I’ll tell you where you are headed.’
Experiences like that make us want to retreat into our shells – or to hit back – but Paul says, ‘No. Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace … with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.’
They are challenging words from Paul. How can we make a success of this – here in the Diocese, here in this church?
Paul gives us some guidance, in this passage, three things that will help us in this struggle to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
The first is the reminder that what unites us is more important than what divides us. Verse 4: ‘There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.’ All of the things Paul mentions are unifying realities. We are all members of one body. We all share the same hope, the same faith, the same Lord, the same God who is over all, through all and in all.
Paul is saying here, ‘Lift your eyes to what unites you,’ not just to a set of beliefs, or even to a set of beliefs, but to the reality of your oneness under God and in God. You have so much that unites you. Work on that. Acknowledge that. Build on that.
I have started a blog – my first ever – an on-line discussion … about the book mainly, and, as you may know, I take issue with a literalistic reading of the first 11 chapters of the Bible (Genesis 1-11), and, I guess because of this, three or four young-earth creationists joined the discussion … aggressively, in one case … and sarcastic & sometimes personal in his attacks. And all the other contributors (most of them Sydney Anglicans) have tried hard to be gracious and gentle and humble – but to no good effect – and in the end I had to intervene and point out that (as far as I know) all of the contributors to the blog are fellow Christians, people struggling to understand the nature and implications of their faith for a contemporary world – just as he is trying to do.
He could have built on that common quest, but he didn’t, to his and our loss.
And the tone of his contributions could have been better … which leads to the second of Paul’s suggestions about how we should pursue this quest for unity. He says, ‘Do it with love in your heart.’ Paul uses the word ‘love’ six times in this passage (Ephesians 4:1 to 5:2) but really it is all about love.
Love is the fundamental imperative of the Christian life, for everything that we do – with everyone – even with the most prickly, disagreeable and aggressive of our Christian sisters and brothers. Love is the key. Love must inspire how we speak with each other, and how we speak about each other. It is the power that binds us, the dynamic that builds us into the body of Christ.
In Paul’s words, ‘But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.’
Love is the key, but there is another key, and it is related. It is the third and final of the suggestions by Paul about how we are to go about being united. And it takes us back to an earlier question about what is at the core of the Christian life. Is it a set of fundamental beliefs that unites us? Is it the Creed, or the Creed plus this or that belief … or is it something else?
I think Paul would say it is not simply those things. It is not simply beliefs. It is something else; something even more important than beliefs. Notice Paul’s words here. He says, ‘I beg you … to lead a life worthy of your calling, in humility, gentleness, patience and love … making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.’ What unites us, what should unite us … is a spirit – the Spirit of Christ.
When we engage with one another, in robust theological argument and debate, what is the spirit that animates us; or, better, whose spirit is it that animates us?
We should hope and pray that it is the Spirit of Christ. When that spirit is lacking – no matter how orthodox our beliefs, no matter how superior we think our beliefs are – we are lacking what is at the core of our Christian faith.
If you want to find something that is fundamental to the Christian faith – look no further than this Spirit of Jesus. A group of us looked at this passage during the week, and we were blown away by it. It is a stunningly beautiful passage that simply breathes the Spirit of Christ. That is the spirit of the passage.
When we struggle, as we will, to get on with each other, to put up with each other in all of our imperfections and prejudices and personal habits that irritate and grate, how does Paul deal with this? He writes: Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.’ ‘
Be like God,’ says, Paul. Earlier he says, ‘Be like Jesus.’
It is in our efforts to be like Jesus – to have and to display his Spirit – that we will know unity – despite our differences, despite our shortcomings of belief and practice. It is a fundamentalism of sorts; a fundamentalism of Spirit; a fundamentalism of Christ-likeness.
May God fill us with the Spirit of his Son this day and through all our days!
In A Restless Faith, I make a number of claims that might be worth discussing.
‘Contemporary evangelicalism exists somewhere on a continuum between fundamentalism and theological liberalism. Liberalism, as I understand it, is that broad approach to the interpretation and appropriation of Christian faith that is, in principle, open to contemporary scholarship, and to making whatever adjustments to Christian belief that are believed to follow from the variously assured results of that scholarship. Liberalism is typically proactive in its engagement with contemporary knowledge and belief. It may not always be astute or careful in accepting what can turn out to be unfounded fashion. It is not always sufficiently wary of its own guiding assumptions, but it is, nevertheless, willing to follow the evidence wherever it might lead, regardless of the consequences. It is, in that sense, courageous.
‘Fundamentalism is the mirror opposite of liberalism. It is, to varying degrees, closed off to contemporary scholarship, and especially to scholarship that contradicts its understandably treasured beliefs. It is reactive rather than proactive. It is defensive rather than inquisitive. It’s most characteristic affirmation is: ‘If the Bible says x, then God says x’. If so-called experts or intellectuals say otherwise, they are wrong. Fundamentalists, despite their admirable passion for God, are often critically unaware of the philosophical and cultural influences that have shaped their distinctively modern (as opposed to pre-modern or post-modern) approach to Christian faith.
‘Evangelicalism is an essentially unstable position simultaneously pulled in the direction of fundamentalisms to its right and liberalisms to its left. It is unstable because it retains a fundamentalist hermeneutic while being variously committed to scholarly excellence and to accepting adequately supported scholarly conclusions. One interesting result of this is Sydney Anglicanism’s lack of support for Creation Science, its jettisoning of a literalistic reading of Genesis 1-3. Sydney Anglicanism is a liberal-fundamentalist hybrid. It doesn’t quite know what it is,’ Chapter 7, pages 145, 146.
Later in A Restless Faith, I make the claim that a strength ofSydneyevangelicalism is its sometimes cautious, but not too reluctant willingness to take on board the assured results of contemporary knowledge:
‘The strength ofSydneyevangelicalism is its willingness to take on board the well-founded results of contemporary scholarship, while at the same time being reluctant to jump too quickly onto bandwagons that have a habit of crashing or losing their wheels. Evangelicalism is an unstable half-way house between fundamentalisms to its right and liberalisms to its left. There is some strength in this instability. However, the danger, certainly forSydneyevangelicalism, is that in being conservative, it ceases to be open to change and reform. In being defensive, it takes on the tenor or spirit of reactionary fundamentalism. Evangelicalisms of all sorts need a better hermeneutic, one that makes better sense of the Christian Scriptures and of the world we also need to keep trying to understand,’ Chapter 10, 228.
I am no expert on worldwide evangelicalism, nor even on the Sydney Anglican version (or versions) of it – though I have benefitted hugely from Sydney Anglicanism’s attempts to engage responsibly with contemporary scholarship.
As I understand it, the reason that Archbishop Peter Jensen is not a young earth creationist is because he has been happy to accept now overwhelmingly adequate evidence of an old earth AND because he doesn’t believe the Bible has to be taken literalistically at this point.
My problem is that the Noah Flood story (apparently) creates more problems for the hermeneutic that Archbishop Peter (and I) inherited from the Reformers; a hermeneutic guided by principles such as the following:
- Sola Scriptura;
- the analogy of Scripture;
- the perspicuity of Scripture;
- the inerrancy (or infallibility) of Scripture.
It seems to me that these principles have gotten in the way of a true (or best possible, all things considered) understanding of the Noah story.
It has forced people into unnecessary mental gymnastics. Following are examples, all from Sydney Anglicans:
- Noah’s Flood was localised – despite the plain sense of the words suggesting otherwise; and even when evidence of a Mesopotamian-wide flood is lacking;
- The Flood ‘appeared’ universal (obviously only to Noah and his family – everyone else was obliterated) - even though the text claims that all mountains under the entire heavens were covered to a depth of 7 metres;
- The Flood occurred as described, but in another dimension; the reason that there is no evidence is because it didn’t happen on this earth;
- God, who can do anything, produced the water miraculously, and cleaned up the mess afterwards, again miraculously;
- The story of Noah’s Flood is true, but if we were to get into a time machine and go back, it might look quite different to how it is described – leaving us entirely in the dark about what happened;
- The genre of the Noah Flood story is different to ordinary history (a position I would happily grant), even though this appears to run counter to the use of this story elsewhere in Scripture – for example, by Jesus and the apostles, who appear to take it as straightforwardly factual, and who also draw on other mythical (or myth like) stories such as the story of Enoch in 1 Peter.
- Noah’s Flood was universal – as so plainly described. That there doesn’t appear to be evidence of this is neither here nor there. God says it happened so it did.
All of these are valiant attempts to remain true to Reformation and post-Reformation principles of Biblical interpretation.
For me, they illustrate the need for a better hermeneutic. They also appear to argue against my claim that evangelicalism should locate itself to the left of some fundamentalisms and to the right of most liberalisms.
James Barr – ages ago – claimed that at the level of hermeneutics, evangelicals are indistinguishable from fundamentalists. They share the same hermeneutic.
Was he right? Am I right that evangelicalism is able to accommodate genuine advances in understanding? Do evangelicals need a new hermeneutic? Are there any out there that might help us?
Over to you!
PS. For some who might be tiring of Noah and his story, let me pose the same questions with respect to another Biblical story. In Genesis 2:16 God warns Adam that should he eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he would die. Paul expounds this story in Romans 5:12f, plainly saying that sin and death came into the world through one man – Adam.
Given Paul’s plain teaching here, is it possible for an evangelical to not believe in a literal Adam? Is it possible for an evangelical (being true to his/her principles) to believe that death did not come about because of this one man’s primordial sin – one because death preceded humankind and two because the Adam story is best taken non-literally?
To put the same questions slightly differently, if one is persuaded by contemporary scientific theories about the origins of humankind (coming out of Africa about 90,000 years ago and descended from earlier primates etc etc – with death an integral part of that very process), could one, as an evangelical, disagree with Paul; or re-configure what Paul wrote to better line up with contemporary thought?
What tends to happen, I think, is that scientific knowledge and Biblical affirmations are harmonized – often unconvincingly (as with the case of Noah’s Flood above).
A quick reading of the Biblical story of Noah’s Flood might suggest that the only possible relevance of this story to the contemporary debate about same-sex marriage is that God sent this cataclysmic flood to punish the sort of corrupt and corrupting behaviour that gay and lesbian unions represent. One might also argue that efforts to dislodge Bible-long and most-of-church-history-long gender differentiations would and should invite the same angry response that God had to similar boundary breaking by angels and humans in Genesis 6:1-4.
The point is that we mustn’t tamper with what God has created for our good. We mustn’t violate what has been so clearly commanded in God’s Word, the Bible. There is certainly some historic and present strength in arguing along these lines, so much so that most conservative Christians will feel they simply have no room to move on gender roles and same-sex relationships.
I once thought that way – until some surprising implications of the story of Noah’s Flood began to dawn on me. I discovered that the same principles of interpretation that prevent some Christians from budging on homosexuality and gender roles also lock them into unsustainable views on other Biblical matters, including the historicity of Noah’s world-wide flood. Let me explain.
The Noah story
The main details of the Noah story are well enough known, and need only brief rehearsal. At the beginning of Genesis 6, God decides to wipe out every living creature (6:6-8), including the entire human race. Noah and his family alone are spared. They are given instructions to build an ark into which they are to bring seven of every kind of clean animal, two of every unclean animal, and seven of every kind of bird (7:2-3). In Noah’s 600th year, the springs of the great deep burst forth, the floodgates of the heavens are opened, and a forty-day and forty-night deluge is unleashed. With no let up, the floodwaters rise and rise until ‘all the high mountains under the entire heavens’ are covered, covering them to a depth of at least seven metres, (7:12, 20). ‘Every living thing on the face of the earth’ is thereby wiped out (7:23), except for Noah and those with him on the ark.
What makes this story so interesting and important is that it is so unambiguous. As a Sunday school child, I got the point – easily, quickly and frighteningly. Moreover, whenever the story is referred to elsewhere in the Bible, it appears that the writers are taking the story as straight-forwardly factual. Luke includes Noah in the genealogy of Jesus, suggesting he believed Noah to be an actual person. The writer of Hebrews includes Noah in his list of heroes of faith, along with other characters mentioned in Genesis 1-11. Jesus himself appears to have accepted the story of Noah as factual, as indicated by these words from the Olivet Discourse:
‘As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away.’ Matthew 24:37-38 NRSV; parallel passage Luke 17:26-27.
That Jesus accepted the Noah story as factual is good reason for his followers to take it that way as well, as is the fact that the Bible as a whole appears to take it that way. Principles of Biblical interpretation I imbibed at theological college (Moore Theological College in Sydney) encouraged me to accept this story as factual. Three principles in particular, forged during the Protestant Reformation, were influential. The principle of sola Scriptura encouraged me to give much greater weight to what I read in the Scriptures than to other sources of knowledge, including the natural sciences. The principle of the analogy of Scripture encouraged me to be guided by what Scripture says about Scripture, to interpret the doubtful bits by the plain bits. The doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture asserts that the Bible’s meaning will mostly be obvious – and in the case of the Noah story this seemed correct.
Adding support to a plain-sense reading of the story is the fact that Jewish and Christian interpreters have mostly taken the story as straightforwardly factual. Norman Cohn, in Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought, chronicles the history of theological reflection on the flood story from pre-Christian times to the present, and notes the near universal acceptance of the Noah story as factual, along with the chronology of Genesis implying a young earth. Many of the first geologists had a Bible in one hand and a pick or shovel in the other as they went about their geological work, convinced they would find ample evidence of a recent and cataclysmic flood.
The trouble is, they didn’t. The genealogies of Genesis 1-11, if taken literally, date Noah’s flood at around 2,300 BC, or about 1,700 years after the creation of the world. According to this dating, the flood happened a very short time ago, and therefore could be expected to have left abundant evidence of its occurrence. There is no such abundant evidence. In fact, there is none. While there is evidence of floods, even large floods, happening at around that time, and earlier, there is no evidence whatsoever of a universal or worldwide flood happening then, or at any other time in human history.
The Noah story, as it stands, faces formidable challenges to be accepted as credible today, challenges that can be expressed in the form of questions such as the following:
Where did all the water come from? 4.4 billion cubic kilometres of water would have had to be added to the oceans for Mt. Everest and other large mountain ranges to be covered.
Where did all the water go after the flood, and in so short a time?
How did the world’s plants survive being submerged for between five months and a year?
How did the world’s fresh-water fish survive their marine environment being swamped by salt water – or vice versa if the water was fresh?
How did Noah and his tiny family keep the animals alive – many with highly specialized dietary requirements? How, for example, were the carnivores fed and kept apart?
How did Noah manage to keep so many species alive? We now know that there are between 50,000 and 75,000 species of birds and animals and about 30 million modern and extinct species of organisms, which raises the problem of how they would all fit on the ark. Even if we assume that there were only two of each animal, rather than 2 plus 7 of some, it has been estimated that each of these animals would have needed to squash into the volume of a milk carton just to fit into the ark.
How did the animals manage to return to their specialized environments – many across un-crossable seas (e.g. Tasmania’s tiger; animals from North and South America).
How did the sloth, who doesn’t walk on land, manage to get all the way back to South America?
Where is the evidence of this massive destruction in places like Australia?
Questions such as these made it impossible, for me at least, to accept the Noah story as factual, even as largely factual. This wasn’t a disturbing realisation. By the time I had begun to ask questions about the historicity of the Noah story, I was already well aware of the widely accepted view that the early chapters of Genesis are best understood as myth, or as a mixture of myth and legend (Sage). Most scholars see the Noah story as a variation and adaptation of earlier Mesopotamian flood stories, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Atrahasis Epic, both dated to around the turn of the second millennium BCE.
That the Noah story might be mythical was not a big problem for me. However, I was aware that it constituted a considerable problem to those who persist with the hermeneutic I was taught and embraced at theological college. That there was a flood, and that a man named Noah and his family escaped the flood in a specially made boat, cannot reasonably be doubted by those who follow the Reformation principles of sola Scriptura, the analogy of Scripture and the perspicuity of Scripture, especially when you consider that Jesus and his apostles appeared to accept these details as factual, as have most Christians (and Jews and Muslims) up until the last few hundred years. Add to this the common belief among fundamentalists and evangelicals that the Bible is inerrant, that it has no errors, even of a scientific nature, the problem becomes enormous.
There have been two major responses to the problem among conservative Christians. The first is to persist in taking the story literally. This is the approach of those who describe themselves as creationists. The strength of this approach is its consistency. Creationists will often argue, with some warrant, that Christians who are not creationists are inconsistent – they take some parts of the Bible literally, for example, its condemnation of homosexual behaviour, but aren’t willing to give other bits the same respectful and believing treatment. Creationists are admirably consistent. The difficulty with their approach is that it runs in the face of mounting (in fact mounted) scientific evidence against a literalistic reading of the Biblical text.
The second response, which one is more likely to encounter among evangelicals, including Sydney evangelical Anglicans, is to suggest that Genesis 6-9 describes a localized flood. There are two insurmountable problems with this suggestion. The first is that it completely misreads the Noah story. To suggest the flood was localized entirely misses the point of the narrative, which is that God ‘regretted having created human beings on the earth’ (6:6), and would have entirely obliterated all life had it not been for his gracious sparing of Noah (6:6-8). It also seriously underestimates the size of the flood, which is said to top the ‘all the high mountains under the entire heavens’ to a depth of at least seven metres, (7:12, 20). That is no localized flood. Geologists have found evidence of large floods in Mesopotamia, in Ur, Uruk, Nineveh and Kish, for example, where flood deposits have been dated back to the fourth and early third millennium BCE. However, and significantly, other cities of the region show no such evidence.
A number of things are interesting and relevant for our purposes about this second suggestion. The first is that the only or major reason it has been suggested is because of accumulating scientific evidence. Most of the early geologists were Christian, many of them clergymen. They were the ones who first realized the flood could not have been universal – hence the more modest suggestion of a localized flood. Though I don’t think the suggestion works, it is significant that scientific advances have occasioned a re-reading of the Biblical text. It was under pressure from scientific discoveries that an alternative reading of the story gained widespread credence.
What was interesting to me as I began to think through the implications of these observations was the realization that the story of Noah’s gigantic flood would have seemed entirely credible in the ancient world, and even up until the last three or four hundred years. Those who first told and then wrote down Noah’s story are likely to have believed in a flat earth, above which was a firmament, above which were store houses of water able to be released in the form of rain. They would also have believed that the earth rested on water, and was surrounded by water.
This understanding makes highly credible the possibility of a universal flood. That the waters above and below and around the earth could flood the earth to a depth greater than the earth’s highest mountains would have seemed very possible. That the earth’s entire population of humans and animals could be wiped out by such a flood, that an ark could be built to house the world’s animals, and that these animals were within walking distance of the ark would have been plausible. The story is credible given ancient assumptions. However, we no longer share those assumptions. We have had to re-think the Noah story.
We also, I believe, need to re-think issues of gender and sexuality that are currently on the political and social agenda. For me, the realisation that we could, in fact must, take full account of contemporary knowledge in understanding and appropriating Biblical texts was liberating.
With respect to the issue of gender roles, I began (some years ago now) to wonder whether just as the Biblical writers had cosmological assumptions we no longer accept as true, they were also assuming a patriarchal understanding of male/female relationships no longer appropriate to 21st century life. Supporting this was the observation that within the Bible itself there is significant development. Starting at the beginning of the Bible, it is possible to plot a gradual, but real and sometimes radical dismantling of patriarchal assumptions as the Biblical story unfolds. It is likely that patriarchal assumptionsdo underlie the account of the creation of Adam and Eve and their subsequent fall.Those assumptions were ubiquitous within the Jewish culture that spawned that account. They are evident, and in some cases disturbingly evident, in the law codes of the Old Testament. Jewish law gave to men exclusive right to divorce their wives (Deuteronomy 24:1-4); a wife was considered the property of her husband, with few or no property rights herself (Exodus 20:17, Deuteronomy 21:16-17, Numbers 27:5-8); virginity and fidelity requirements were more deliberately and ruthlessly applied to women than to men (Numbers 5:11-31).
Patriarchy comes under significant attack in the ministry of Jesus, or at least earlier expressions of it do. Women are given the right to divorce their husbands (Mark 10:12). Jesus treats women with great respect, and readily accepts them as his disciples. He significantly elevates their status and role. Jesus’ example is followed by his apostles, including Paul. Paul may not have gone all the way towards dismantling patriarchy. However, one could argue that the trajectory established by Jesus and honoured by Paul was of such a nature that patriarchy, like slavery, can reasonably be set aside, especially in a world where women have come to show themselves capable of holding their own at all levels of human endeavour.
Another subject I have had to re-think of late is homosexuality. This was an issue I began to confront in personal and pastoral contexts from the early 2000s when I worked as an Anglican priest in Sydney’s inner suburbs of Redfern, Alexandria, Beaconsfield and Zetland. South Sydney Municipal Council houses a higher than average percentage of gay and lesbian residents. I was aware, in meeting and getting to know people of alternative sexual orientations to my own, that I had many prejudices, some of them created during my earlier nurturing in North American fundamentalism and Australian evangelical Anglicanism.
I wanted to have my prejudices challenged and, if necessary, overturned. I was heartened by changes I had noted within Sydney Anglican circles. There had been, in the past, an almost universal tendency to claim that homosexuality itself was sinful, regardless of behaviour. To be homosexual was to be sinful. That stance had already begun to be challenged when I first went to Moore College as an undergraduate. It has certainly been challenged since then, with many now recognising that homosexual orientation is simply that, an orientation, a possibly hard-wired tendency to be erotically aroused by people of the same gender. This understanding did not result from a careful reading or re-reading of the relevant Biblical texts. It came about under pressure from advancing scientific understanding. It also came about because of a new willingness by many to listen to homosexual people who were now bolder in telling their stories.
A year or two into my time at South Sydney Parish, I initiated, with the help of John McIntyre and good friend, Vic Branson, a pub discussion group called Quest. We ran it at the Parkview Hotel in Alexandria, a nearby suburb. One of the people we asked to speak at Quest was Rev. Dr Canon Stuart Barton Babbage. He had recently written his memoirs, Memoirs of a Loose Canon. In a long and distinguished career, Canon Barton Babbage had been Principal of Ridley College (in Melbourne), Dean of St Andrews Cathedral (Sydney), Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral (Melbourne) and Dean of the Australian College of Theology. What stuck longest in my memory from that night was Dr Babbage sharing with us the impact on him and his thinking of discovering that his son was gay. I can’t remember his exact words, but they were something along these lines: ‘This experience forced me to re-think my theology and to re-assess the adequacy of earlier understandings.’
Experiences like that, along with advancing scientific understanding, are forcing and/or encouraging many others (myself included) to re-think this issue. Those of us who identify as Christian must involve ourselves in what needs to be an on-going dialogue, a dialogue between us and the text of Scripture – to understand more fully what that text might mean (when it was written and for now), a dialogue with contemporary and evolving scientific research – to gain better understandings about what it means to be homosexual; a dialogue between those who are gay and lesbian and those who are straight – so we really do listen to each other; a dialogue among theologians and ethicists – as the implications of our thinking and acting are worked through.
This we must do as speedily as we can – for all sorts of good reasons, including the now urgent need to take seriously the heart-felt desire of our gay and lesbian friends to share in the benefits and responsibilities of marriage.
A related and less urgent challenge, one I haven’t yet fully put my mind to, is how to read and appropriate the Noah story for contemporary benefit and understanding.
Rev. Dr Keith Mascord
Note: this article picks up themes and some of the content of chapter 6 of A Restless Faith: Leaving fundamentalism in a quest for God (2012).It would be good to have the full text of that chapter (and, ideally, of the whole book) to inform discussion about this Blogg piece. To order your own paper or e-version, go to: www.arestlessfaith.com.au