Chelmsford Anglican Mainstream quotes from an interesting press release from Changing Attitude, a pressure group which is “working for gay and lesbian affirmation within the Anglican Communion”, and of which the Bishop of Chelmsford is a patron. The press release, written by Davis Mac-Iyalla, director of Changing Attitude Nigeria, is interesting for its argument that full acceptance of homosexuality in the life of the church is analogous to the abolition of slavery.
Now in my post yesterday A further implication of Christianity being cross-cultural I noted (quoting an older post) that
slavery is accepted in the Bible because it was accepted by all in the cultural context, but this does not imply that it is normative for Christians.
In other words, it is right for Christians to support the abolition of slavery because the acceptance of slavery in the Bible was a culturally relative matter. This argument is in practice accepted by almost all Christians today, although it was highly controversial in the 19th century. Many evangelicals, including myself, apply the same argument to biblical passages which appear to teach that church leaders must be male, but this remains a controversial issue.
But does the same argument apply to homosexuality, as Mac-Iyalla seems to claim? Where should the line be drawn between what is culturally relative and what are the fundamental and unchangeable principles of the Christian faith?
Well, I ended my last post by writing that it is only by the guidance of the Holy Spirit that Christians can draw this line. It would I am sure be helpful in the current controversies in the Anglican Communion and elsewhere for those on both sides (and for myself) to listen more to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, and follow this rather than their own preconceived or culturally conditioned understandings, or their own emotional reactions. Nevertheless, in a case like this it is important that the exegetical and theological issues be explored properly, using a scholarly rather than a fundamentalist approach to the Bible.
Mac-Iyalla effectively accuses his leading opponent Archbishop Peter Akinola of taking this fundamentalist approach, “an overly-simplistic interpretation of scripture”. This is contrasted with Changing Attitude’s own claim to have “well-researched arguments” and the approach of bishops who disagree with Akinola, who are said to be
genuinely seeking biblical truth through prayer, listening to the experiences of those who the church currently condemns, and close re-examination of scripture in the original languages.
I cannot comment on how fair this is to Akinola and other leaders on his side of the argument. But I can argue against Mac-Iyalla’s claim that the scholarly approach to the Bible necessarily supports his position.
Of course my own arguments have to presuppose some common ground, that both sides accept that the matter is to be decided according to “biblical truth”. If Mac-Iyalla were to deny this, the only argument I could use against him would be that he has abandoned historic Christianity and the position of the church for complete cultural relativism. But Mac-Iyalla does not take this position; rather, he claims that “biblical truth” is on his side.
The essence of Mac-Iyalla’s argument seems to be that
historically, the powers of the church itself distorted the truth of the gospel from its original meaning and both interpreted and translated it to oppress gay people and women instead of including us as equals.
Is this claim tenable? Well, the only way that it can be upheld is to argue that the biblical passages, or at least those in the New Testament, which appear to condemn homosexual activity have in fact been misinterpreted and “distorted”. At this point his argument is in fact quite different from the argument that Christians should not support slavery. No one, as far as I know, disputes that passages like Ephesians 6:5-9 and Philemon 8-14 uphold slavery as an institution. The argument now accepted by almost all Christians is that these passages should be understood as culturally relative.
So we are left with two possible arguments for Mac-Iyalla to rely on. But neither of them is at all convincing.
On the exegetical issue, the primary biblical passages of relevance are Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10. I looked at some of these arguments a few months ago in a post at Better Bibles Blog, see also the long comment thread on this. I consider that there is sufficient uncertainty about the meaning of arsenokoites and malakos that it is not safe to rely on these words in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 for condemnation of homosexual behaviour, rather than more generally of sexual immorality.
However, Romans 1:26-27 does seem to me to be an explicit and undeniable condemnation of homosexual activity between men and between women. I am aware of attempts, such as this one apparently by Ann Nyland, to argue for other interpretations of these verses, such as that they refer to “angels having sex with humans, as well as committing other crimes”. But I don’t see how this can explain “men (arsenes) … were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameless acts with other men” (part of Romans 1:27, TNIV).
Of course at this point Mac-Iyalla may prefer to shift to his second argument, accepting that these verses do indeed refer to homosexual activity but claiming that this is a culturally relative matter. He argues that in this way condemnation of homosexuality is equivalent to endorsement of slavery. Presumably he would understand the point of similarity to be, in my words, that the former, like the latter, “is accepted in the Bible because it was accepted by all in the cultural context”.
But can such a claim be substantiated? I think not. It is by no means true that all in the cultural context condemned homosexual activity. Indeed the whole point of Romans 1:26-27 in context is that this activity was widespread and culturally acceptable. True, Paul was not making a new point in condemning it but following the Old Testament, continuing what was probably a long standing Jewish criticism of Hellenistic culture. Nevertheless his condemnation is explicit, and is clearly directed at the cultural norms shared, at least until their recent conversion, by his audience in early imperial Rome, according to which certain forms of homosexual activity were considered acceptable.
So, if we apply Fee’s criterion
The degree to which a New Testament writer agrees with a cultural situation in which there is only one option increases the possibility of the cultural relativity of such a position.
then we must note that there were many options in this cultural situation, and so the position is unlikely to be culturally relative. It is this criterion which distinguishes the homosexuality issue from the slavery one. Indeed, this is also Fee’s understanding, for he continues immediately after these words with:
Thus, for example, homosexuality was both affirmed and condemned by writers in antiquity, yet the New Testament takes a singular position against it. On the other hand, attitudes toward slavery as a system or toward the status and role of women were basically singular; no one denounced slavery as an evil, and women were held to be basically inferior to men (How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, second edition, p.74 of my copy).
So, Fee’s position is that the biblical prohibition of homosexuality is not culturally relative. He clarifies this in more detail a little later:
The question of homosexuality, however, is considerably different [from that of women’s role in the church]. In this case the guidelines stand against its being culturally relative. The whole Bible has a consistent witness against homosexual activity as being morally wrong.
In recent years some people have argued that the homosexuality that the New Testament speaks against is that in which people abuse others and that private monogamous homosexuality between consenting adults is a different matter. They argue that on exegetical grounds it cannot be proved that such homosexuality is forbidden. It is also argued that culturally these are twentieth-century options not available in the first century. Therefore, they would argue that some of our guidelines (e.g., 5, 6) open the possibility that the New Testament prohibitions against homosexuality are also culturally relative, and they would further argue that some of the guidelines are not true or are irrelevant.
The problem with this argument, however, is that it does not hold up exegetically or historically. The homosexuality Paul had in view in Romans 1:24-28 is clearly not of the “abusive” type; it is homosexuality of choice between men and women. Furthermore, Paul’s word homosexual in 1 Corinthians 6:9 literally means genital homosexuality between males. Since the Bible as a whole witnesses against homosexuality, and invariably includes it in moral contexts, and since it simply has not been proved that the options for homosexuality differ today from those of the first century, there seem to be no valid grounds for seeing it as a culturally relative matter (pp.75-76 of the same book).
I must, therefore, conclude with Fee that Mac-Iyalla’s arguments, both the exegetical one and the cultural relativity one, fail. And so, according to the scholarly approach to the Bible, Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality in Romans 1:26-27 should be understood as normative for Christians in all times and cultures.
Now I can only agree with the final paragraph of the Changing Attitude press release:
Changing Attitude Nigeria calls on all committed Anglicans, including primates and bishops, to prayerfully seek ways to resolve the present dispute in the Anglican Communion, recognising that we are all striving to achieve the same objective – to understand God’s will and how to apply it in Christian faith.
But we must also recognise that the issue in the Anglican Communion is not in fact primarily about homosexuality. Rather, as I quoted a few days ago from a Global South communiqué,
What is at stake is the very nature of Anglicanism – not just about sexuality but also about the nature of Christ, the truth of the Gospel and the authority of the Bible. We reject the religion of accommodation and cultural conformity that offers neither transforming power nor eternal hope.
It seems to me that those who are seeking to overthrow the historic rejection by the church of homosexual activity are seeking “accommodation and cultural conformity” rather than “transforming power [and] eternal hope”. This is my fundamental reason for standing firm against them.