Readers may wonder what I find in common between homosexuality and divorce, except that I can loosely categorise them under “gender issues”. This is nothing to do with the ending of gay marriages or “civil partnerships”. But it is all about how a proper understanding of the biblical teaching on divorce, which I discussed here recently, may also be helpful in finding a Christian approach to homosexuality. Here I take further one of the points which I outlined in my post about Bishop Gene Robinson.
First, to summarise my conclusions on divorce: God’s perfect plan is for sexual activity to be restricted to lifelong monogamous marriages. But he recognises that many people’s hearts are hard such that they are unable to remain faithful to one marriage partner for life, so he makes provisions for divorce. Jesus reiterates the original call to lifelong monogamy as the ideal for his disciples, but not as a new law to be applied to all.
The same principles, it seems to me, can be applied to homosexual activity. We can start by noting that homosexual activity should not be considered a worse sin than wrong heterosexual activity: the Bible passages where homosexual acts are condemned, such as Leviticus 18 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, also condemn in the same terms heterosexual adultery, incest etc.
God’s perfect plan for human sexuality, as put forward in Genesis 2:24 and quoted several times by Jesus and elsewhere in the New Testament, is
a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.
Genesis 2:24 (TNIV)
In other words, and in accordance with the further explanations in the New Testament, sexual activity is intended to be restricted to married couples of opposite gender in lifelong monogamous marriages. And this remains Jesus’ ideal for his disciples.
Nevertheless, as Jesus recognised,
Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given.
Matthew 19:11 (TNIV)
And so, as explained in verse 8, special arrangements or concessions were made for those who could not accept it because “your hearts were hard”.
The explicitly described special arrangements are only for heterosexuals who cannot remain in monogamous marriages. But, if we believe as we should that homosexual activity is no worse than heterosexual activity outside marriage, then we can see that by the same principle special arrangements would be appropriate for those who cannot accept the strict teaching on marriage because of their homosexual orientation. Jesus’ ideal for such people, just as it is for unmarried heterosexuals, is that they remain celibate, or get married – to someone of the opposite gender. But, since “only those to whom it has been given” can accept this teaching, other arrangements should be made for the rest.
What might those other arrangements be?
Well, it is instructive that the concession for those who could not continue in a marriage was not simply to sleep around. Indeed, that would be considered adultery, and in the Old Testament was punishable by death (Deuteronomy 22:22). Sexual activity outside the original marriage was not punished as adultery (even if by Jesus’ strict definition it was adultery) only if there had been a properly recognised divorce and remarriage. Note also that a man was not allowed to return to his first wife after divorcing a second one (Deuteronomy 24:4), so rapid alternation of partners was ruled out. The reason for these rules is surely that in God’s sight unrestricted sexual activity is a far worse sin than abandoning a bad marriage hopefully for a better one.
If the same principles are extended to homosexual relationships, the conclusion must be that they should be regulated in a similar way, such that homosexual activity is allowed only within long term committed relationships, not as unrestricted sleeping around. The clearest way of regulation is to make formal arrangements for some kind of gay or lesbian marriage. Here in the UK this is in fact known as “civil partnership” rather than marriage, and that is appropriate because it distinguishes such a partnership from a heterosexual marriage according to God’s ideal.
On this basis, it would be consistent for Christians to view homosexuals in a civil partnership, and faithful to that partnership, as in an equivalent position to people who are divorced and remarried. If the latter are permitted to minister in the church, then for consistency the former also should be. If, as at least in the Church of Wales, the latter can be bishops, then no logic remains in not allowing a gay person in a civil partnership to be a bishop.
Am I entirely convinced of this argument? No. But I do think it should be considered carefully as part of the ongoing discussions of these issues in the Anglican Communion and other church bodies. This kind of approach just might pave the way for a compromise by which homosexual activity is not completely approved but is not a complete barrier to Christian ministry.
At the moment I see little hope for the ongoing unity of the Anglican Communion, with the Diocese of Sydney now joining with several African provinces in refusing to attend next year’s Lambeth Conference if the bishops from the USA are also attending. If there is any approach which might allow the Communion to survive, it will probably be along the lines of what I am suggesting here.