style=”font-weight: bold; color:#0067ce;”>The Witness of Scripture and Church History in the Dialogue on Same-Sex Unions
Edith Humphrey is Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
(The article below is an abridged version of papers originally requested by the Diocese of New Westminster, British Columbia for meetings of the Commission on Faith and Doctrine, and presented by Dr. Edith Humphrey in 1999-2000. Dr. Humphrey, then teaching Biblical Studies at Augustine College, Ottawa, was recently appointed Professor of New Testament at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. She has emerged as one of the most cogent voices for biblical orthodoxy in the current turmoil over the Church's response to the blessing of homosexual couples and the ordination of practising homosexuals. The relevance of this study for the present struggles within the Presbyterian Church in Canada will become painfully but usefully evident.
To look even briefly at the material coming from the pens of theological writers is to meet a perplexing fact — they all appeal to Scripture. But the stakes are high, especially for scholars within the Church who are sympathetic to the homosexual agenda. They seem driven to relativize the voice of Scripture and tradition at the point where it deals with homosexual practice as an abomination in the sight of God. Dr. Humphrey outlines the scriptural vision for human sexuality as a basis for her sober analysis of such approaches, and a reasoned response. From this fundamental clarification she moves on to probe the place of homosexuality in Scripture and Church tradition, ending with reflections on a concrete instance of a proposed rite for the blessing of same-sex unions. The precise context of her study may be Canadian Anglican but its relevance for our PCC situation today — and tomorrow — is breathtaking. Ed.)
What constitutes a faithful reading of Scripture?
A faithful reading of Scripture is crucial to understanding the issues and questions before us. Scripture is key to the thinking of the Christian. While we are first of all people of Christ, we are also people of the Book. It is most particularly in the Bible that the supreme glory of our Lord is shown so that the Church can together know the One who is the Truth, and therefore worship together.
To read Scripture as it is meant to be read, we begin with an understanding of its character. It is not a static deposit of precepts to be mined, but a vibrant collection of books by which the Church is taught, and by which she is identified. The story of Scripture can be understood in five great acts : Act 1 tells us about a creator God; Act 2 speaks of a good creation gone askew by death, corruption and sin; Act 3 presents the call of the nation Israel to be a light to the world, Act 4 shows how that calling was fulfilled in a surprising and crucial way in the coming, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Christ; Act 5, in which we find ourselves, describes the ongoing life and healing mission of the Church through the Holy Spirit in this world. We await the finale of this drama, but are given wonderful intimations of God's purposes for his people and the entire cosmos.
The Bible came to us in human words, particular to time and place. To recognize this is not to suggest that they are arbitrary or without authority. Rather, we see in the Bible's many forms — narrative, law, gospel, psalm, epistle, apocalypse — God's coming to be with us, for us and in us. We learn this story intimately, so that we can indeed repeat it with human lips, and learn to play an authentic part in it. Particularly important to a faithful reading of Scripture is the recognition of this "we" factor: the Scripture implies, and indeed states explicitly, that the Word is heard not privately, but by the whole community, past and present. When we as today's faith community recognize, understand and pass on what (and Who) has been revealed, we are using the God-given faculty of reason. Our experience and reason are not actual "authorities" as we understand Scripture or decide about present concerns. Instead, experience (especially the common experience of the Church) is our context, the place where we receive God's love and wisdom; reason is a "tool" or means of interpreting what we hear. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we weigh our own thoughts and inclinations against the biblical and traditional witnesses which we have already recognized and received. In other words, we measure the helpfulness of current ideas against a long-established understanding of God, the world, and humanity, to see if they stand up to the test.
As members and interpreters in the community of faith, we are in a sense actors in a divinely conceived drama. Our role as actors is not, however, to improvise with abandon. In reading the Scriptures together, and by honouring the "actors" who have gone before us, we keep within our memories and hearts the central, major "part" in the drama — God's. As those who have received the Spirit, we will want to share in the mind of Christ, understanding the word personally, but not autonomously or individualistically. The Church has, from the beginning, struggled over difficult matters. Her reflection and decisions about such matters subsequent to the time of the New Testament should not be relegated to the archives but, together with the New Testament, acknowledged as carrying authority for us younger brothers and sisters in the same family. Together with God's whole Church, past and present, we are called to discern God's voice and will, in humility and in confidence that the Holy Spirit is active in our midst. Thus we do not lift our twenty-first-century Western perspective above the perspective of other Christians in other times and places. What is more, we will not consider the voice of the Scriptures to be simply another set of data among competing claims, between which we are free to arbitrate. It is true that the words of the Scriptures are interpreted words from God. However, in recognizing a limit to the canon, the Church acknowledges that the "interpretation" made by the Old and New Testament authors is authoritative.
The human authors of the Scriptures wrote in particular historical contexts. But this fact should not be used as a pretext for bypassing explicit teaching or perspectives which our age finds difficult. Rather, in each case, we are to read all the pertinent texts carefully. Even where we see that a prescriptive passage is particular to a moment in the history of God's people (e.g., prohibition of pork, or head coverings for women), we acknowledge and respect the underlying theological/ethical truths. Some prescriptions have an enduring claim (e.g., the command not to murder) because they are essentially linked to what has been revealed about the world, our nature, and the nature of God in the salvation story. A sensitive reading of the Scriptures will heed the cues given in each text concerning its historical and literary context, its genre and intent, and the way it is related to the divine drama. As Paul puts it, in concert with the perspective of Luke, Hebrews and 1 Peter, God acted definitively both "at just the right time" (Rom. 5:6) and "in the fullness of time" (Gal. 4:4). To see a text as moored in historical space and time, and at the same time transcending such particular moments, lets us grasp each particular moment described in the text in relation to the greater story. In one sense the coming of Jesus renders pale the significance of every other time; in another sense, God's coming to us heals, dignifies and transfigures the whole of human life — and, in time, the life of the whole created order (Rom. 8:18-26). God's entry point into humanity — the Incarnation — questions, illuminates and transforms all that came before and all that comes after. A faithful reading of Scriptures thus means that we seek to understand how the passages that we are reading at the moment, and the questions that we are presently asking, fit into this forgiving, healing and life-giving drama that has been initiated by God himself.
What is the purpose of human sexuality in Christian understanding? How do Scripture and tradition speak of human sexuality? From the creation narrative or narratives we learn that our created sexual differences are key to our identity as human beings. The solemn declaration of Genesis 1:27 stresses both diversity and unity: "So God created adam in his image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them." Again, in the more homey stories of Genesis 2 and 3, God creates Adam and Eve with equal dignity, in a complementary but asymmetrical relationship. They are intimately connected for good or ill, in blessing and in deprivation. Taken as a whole, these chapters say that sexual distinctions are part of God's good (very good! 1:31) creation.
Yet sexuality, along with other facets of human life, has been deeply affected by sin and by divinely imposed limitations. The judgment declared for disobedience — "You shall surely die" — is partly fulfilled in the less-than-spontaneous and complicated inter-relations in which humans, even in their most intimate bonds, now labour. Yet the bond created in the beginning between husband and wife still retains its original stamp of goodness, for in it Eve becomes the "mother of the living" and in their harsher surroundings human beings learn the wonder of inter-dependence and dependence upon the One who has made them in two sexes. This inter-dependence is presented as part of the initial and perfect will of God: "It is not good for the man to be alone"; "This is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh"; "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh."
Quite clearly, then, sexuality is not tangential to human experience: in our divinely protected but vulnerable world it must be understood as both a great gift and a powerful instrument for good or ill, the place of healing fidelity and looming destructive faithlessness. Here, in our most common and most demanding relationship, we see a powerful symbol of the relationship which God desires with us as the body of Christ. Single and married people alike know that the relationship between male and female is a "given" in life, but also that it is difficult. So the epigram: "Marriage is the only war in which you sleep with the enemy."
In summary, the Bible presents sexuality as a divinely prescribed mode of being for human beings, valuable in itself and in its iconic representation of divine-human relations. From the beginning, sexuality entailed interdependence, companionship and procreation; the distortion and strained fulfilment of these good things, subsequent to the Fall, has not completely thwarted the original intent (see the celebration of human love in the Song of Solomon, and the explicit blessing of marriage in the New Testament).
How is human sexuality related to God's plan of redemption? So far we have not considered what the fourth act in the drama (the Christ-event) means for our understanding of human sexuality. To do this, however, we must go further back in the story of redemption, and consider the importance of sexuality in the teaching of the Old Testament. The prophets of the Old Testament frequently use the profound lessons taught by inter-dependent spousal relationships to declare God's covenant plan and redemptive will for Israel. The books of Judges, Hosea, Jeremiah and Ezekiel portray the covenant in explicit terms of sexual love, most vividly in Ezekiel 16:7-8.This positive use of sexual imagery is balanced in the Old Testament by passages that describe the infidelity of God's people and their breaking covenant. This metaphoric use of sexual pictures in the Old Testament assumes that faithful marriage between husband and wife is a great good in itself. In New Testament and ongoing Christian tradition we see both consistency with the Old Testament understanding of marriage, and some revolutionary ideas as well.
The first novelty is the dignity afforded celibate singleness, by both Jesus and Paul — not because sexuality is understood as inferior or as a block to spirituality, but as a sign that human sexual relationships are less than the final or ultimate good, given humankind's more foundational need for a right relationship with God. What the Old Testament affirms through its injunction to periodic sexual abstinence, the New Testament dignifies as a lifestyle sign. Thus in Matthew 19 and Mark 10 Jesus affirms the normative goodness of monogamous marriage — "What God has joined together let no one put asunder." He also affirms the complete validity of a human life that foregoes this usual fulfilment — "Some become eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom." The sacrificial foregoing of erotic love is of value in the establishment of God's rule (witness Jesus' own pattern of life), but the symbolic import and fundamental goodness of marriage is never questioned. Paul echoes this understanding both in his personal comments and his teaching on singleness and marriage (1 Cor. 7). Marriage is honourable and even an unbelieving partner may be influenced by a godly spouse; singleness is also a gift to the community of the Church and has its place in the healing of humanity.
A second new departure is the way in which marriage moves from a simple pictorial reminder of God's desired intimacy with his people (as in the Old Testament), to take on a "sacramental" significance. The incarnation, the coming of God himself as one of us into our world, has made a living reality of what was only a metaphor. Similarly, the relationship between husband and wife tangibly indicates the life of Christ with the Church, and actually partakes of it (as does voluntary and devoted celibacy). In this sense, acts of toil and sacrifice, such as a husband's toil for his partner, and a woman's pain in bearing children, themselves take on a glorious role in God's saving work: they are sub-creative acts, dignified and glory-tinged by the toil and pain of Jesus for his Bride. The curse has been reversed by the last Adam. Sin, sorrow, pain and death have lost their sting: the plumbing of the depths of our condition, and the victory of resurrection seen in Jesus, give us a living hope. Thus, amid other signs of healing and reconciliation, the barrier or strain between the sexes is lifted in Christ ("there is no male or female"). Yet we still await that new age in which there will be no mourning, pain or death. Until that new age arrives our lives (in fullness and in deprivation) are being worked into God's plan.
How does sexuality itself help us to grow as Christians? The most obvious role of sexuality in our growth as Christians is to call us into a demanding yet fulfilling relationship, in which we learn that dependence and trust are essential to our being. Because we are fallen creatures, these lessons will involve pain, and sometimes will be taught inversely (that is, by our experience of the opposite of trust and dependence) yet they are invaluable. As with our membership in God's Church, we should not approach marriage simply as a "voluntary association," but as an inviolable covenant. Here, we learn to express love in good times and in trouble, when the other is strong in fidelity or not. Similarly, a faithful decision to be celibate and yet in dynamic and life-giving relationships with persons of both genders is an arduous calling of great benefit to both the celibate person and the community of God. Both godly lifestyles, when lived out consistently, are potent expressions of the surprising truth that in Christ God has done something about "hardness of heart" (Matt. 19:8, 11-12). This perspective renders faithful marriage and celibacy a creative adventure in which God's grace is enacted, rather than an abhorrent or impossible lifestyle choice that impinges upon our freedom.
In a fallen world, our complicated inter-relationships may become part of God's medicine. Neither an uncommitted heterosexual relationship nor a same-sex union can ultimately fulfil this role, although "in its early stages it may have an appearance of particular beauty and spirituality" (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III. 4). This is because both the uncommitted liaison and the attempt to find fulfilment in a person of the same sex are expressions of autonomy, "trying to be human in the self as sovereign man or woman" (again Barth, CD III. 4). However, self-controlled sexuality (kept within the limits of monogamous marriage, or expressed in the choice of celibacy) shows forth to the Church, and to society which looks on, the glories of faithfulness and self-sacrifice. The Scriptures teach that the physical dimension of sexuality is both under the authority of the person (1 Cor. 6:18) and a gift for the benefit of one's spouse (1 Cor. 7:2-4). Thus our sexuality, expressed appropriately in a monogamous physical union, or expressed chastely by single persons in means other than those that are erotic, becomes a powerful factor in helping us to be healed, and to grow up into what we are meant to be. Amidst current assumptions that sexuality is for the purpose of self-gratification, the Church's different attitude towards this great gift is bound to be a strong sign in the world of God's love and righteousness.
How is homosexuality understood in Scripture, tradition, and in contemporary theology?
The story of Sodom, the "Holiness Code" of Leviticus, the lists of dark behaviours in the epistles, and the more extensive illustration of Romans 1 all register disapproval. The biblical teaching is not unconsciously coloured by cultural norms; rather, it adopts a decisive counter-cultural stand for its time.
The Holiness Code must be read carefully. Granted, many of the prescriptions or prohibitions have to do with cultic practices of ancient Israel no longer binding on Christians. But that is no grounds to dismiss or relativize all its instruction, as is widely done in the current debate over homosexuality in the Church. Do we place homoerotic behaviour in the same category as the prohibition of non-kosher foods, or do we hear it, like the prohibition of incest, directly addressing our behaviour today?
Both Jesus and Paul direct us to understand sexual behaviour as an activity blessed by God only within the institution of a faithful marriage. Jesus makes clear that "from the beginning … God made them male and female" and so defines marriage for our confused age as the union of two differently gendered human beings. In Romans 1: 18-32, Paul also hearkens back to the creation story (and to the story of the Fall), presenting homoerotic activity (including lesbianism) as symptomatic of the primal rebellion against God, alongside other symptoms such as covetousness, murder, strife, gossip, deceit, disloyalty and pride. Homoerotic activity, because of its character against nature, and because it does not rejoice in God's created order as given to us — that is, in humans as "male and female" — shows that humanity has forgotten the true God of creation. The result is degradation (as with murder, strife, deceit and other human sins) and the confusion of evil for good — "they not only do them but even applaud others who practise them." In the Corinthian letters, Paul singles out sexual immorality as a sin that can affect the whole person, and mentions both active and passive homo-erotic activity in a list of vices which the Corinthians once practised before their turn to Christ, and which they must now eschew (1 Cor. 6:18; 1 Cor. 6:9). Efforts of some recent commentators to reinterpret or to limit Paul's use of the terms malakoi ("soft ones," i.e., the passive homosexual partner) and arsenokoitai (literally "bedders of males," cf. Leviticus 20:13) are obvious cases of special pleading. Careful and non-biased studies of these words show that their meaning is all-too-clear. They refer to homoerotic behaviour in general, not to "prostitution" or "forced" relations. In line with Paul, Early Christian communities retained Old Testament views regarding sexual immorality. They understood sexual immorality, emphatically including homoerotic behaviour, as a sign of the disruption of the good created order, and a sin which calls for repentance, restoration and healing.
Thus we can summarize the Church's tradition as affirming that while homosexuals are definitely to be included in the community of faith, along with the rest of us sinners, anyone who joins such a community of faith should know that it is a place of transformation, discipline, and learning — not a place to be comforted or indulged. This cuts across a large body of recent writing on the subject of homosexual behaviour in the Church which appears to be straining to create a loophole for the vices that the writers seem determined to legitimize. This thrust of scholarship is dismissive both of the plain sense of Scripture and of the voice of the Church through the centuries, and guilty of "wishful interpretation."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who also learned the depth of God's grace in a dark time, speaks powerfully to us about ethics, reality and truth: "If one is to say how a thing really is, i.e., if one is to speak truthfully, one's gaze and one's thought must be directed towards the way in which the real exists in God and through God and for God" (Ethics, English Translation 1955, p. 365). Bonhoeffer thus sends us back to Romans 1, that we might see God's world and the creation as they really are. It is his prayer that God's people, bestowed with the vision of Christ, will learn to see, to give thanks and to worship God as we see truly and speak truly. May it be so.
What would it mean for the Church to bless same-sex unions?
(This final section of Dr.Humphrey's study analyzes the "Proposed Rite for the Blessing of Same-Sex Unions," under consideration by the Diocese of New Westminster at the time of original writing. We see here the destructive impact of presuming that God blesses such an arrangement — and that the Church should agree to echo such a presumed blessing. This powerful analysis highlights by implication a path that is likely to be followed in other denominations to create an opening for homosexual couples to be formally acknowledged by the Church. The parallels to the issue of the ordination of practising homosexual persons will be obvious. Ed.)
While the "Proposed Rite" might not take the same shape in a different denominational context, its mind-cast is, alas, the common property of the Church in our day — the idea that, properly understood, the ceremony is conceived as honouring a covenant already in fact created by the couple themselves. The union thus "already exists" by the consent of the couple; it is more about them than about either God or the Church, invited to bless what they have determined to do. Why is the "Proposed Rite" of urgent interest for non-Anglicans as well? It signals that seen against the backdrop of Scripture and the teaching of the Church through the centuries, what is being advanced is at every point deeply selfish, self-chosen, and community-denying.
What would be meant by the blessing of "same-sex unions" which include erotic relations? For the Church to bless these would mean giving thanks to God for them — to declare that in themselves these are pictures or icons of God's love, that they display in a certain mode the salvation story, and that they are glorified or taken up into God's own actions and being. It would be to declare that they have a significant and fruitful part in creation, and that they are symbols of the in-breaking and coming rule of God, in which the Church now shares and in which we will eventually participate fully. It would be to "speak a good word" about this sort of relationship, explicitly declaring it to be a condition in which the way of the cross and the way of new life come together. It would thus claim that the relationship is conducive to repentance, healing, growth and glorification for the two men or the two women involved. Precisely here, the Church would be saying, you can see the love of God in human form, and the glory of humanity. Here would be a sacrament, an occasion where God meets us. The proposed ceremony thus names God as the one who blesses an act for which in fact repentance is required. It replaces God with an idol, and rends the Church. What will the Church do when it prays against itself? A house divided cannot stand.
What, then, is the difference between a same-sex erotic union relationship and a marriage covenant? The attempt made by the "Proposed Rite" to pattern the first upon the second exposes the differences, the most obvious being that God himself enacted the first covenant, giving Eve to Adam and Adam to Eve, so that Adam can say, "This is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh." Through the prophets, God blessed human marriage by adopting it as a lively metaphor, even a microcosm of his relationship with Israel; both St. Paul and the seer John understand the marriage covenant as a mysterious and sacred picture of Christ's bond with the Church. Marriage is not simply an end in itself, but has an impulse to move beyond itself. By its nature and calling it implies a Future and celebrates a Continuity. It does so both on the natural level in the procreation of children and on the spiritual level in giving glory to the Triune God. This covenant witnesses in a powerful way to Christ's unselfish love for those whom he makes his own. It also points mysteriously to the wonder of the Trinity, our ultimate pattern of "other-but-same-in relationship."
By its nature, same-sex erotic activity cannot fulfil these roles, but witnesses rather to the general brokenness of every human being, for which Christ offers healing. Accordingly to put contrary words into God's mouth or to ask members of Christ's body to "bless" is not only to "go beyond what is written" (1 Cor. 4:6). It is to commend to the family of God, and thus to the world, activities frequently attended by destructive consequences, of which the physical are the most obvious. It is to rob some of God's own children, those struggling with sexual problems, of their birthright — to hear God's word, to repent, to be comforted, to be healed.
The prophet Jeremiah knew a day like ours.
- They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, "Peace, peace,"
when there is no peace.
Thus says the Lord:
Stand at the crossroads, and look
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way lies; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls.
But they said, "We will not walk in it."
How can you say, "We are wise,
and the law of the Lord is with us,"
when, in fact, the false pen of the scribes
has made it into a lie?
The wise shall be put to shame,
since they have rejected the word of the Lord,
what wisdom is there in them?
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, "Peace, peace,"
when there is no peace.
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
(Jer. 6:14-16; 8:8-22)
Readers are encouraged to read the original, full-length version of the papers that we have drawn on for the present article on the Augustine College website. Look also for a further article by Dr. Humphrey recently posted on this website, Why this issue? for reflections on her own involvement with the same-sex question at the highest levels of Anglican Church courts in Canada. Also highly recommended is a major piece published by The Globe and Mail, June 18, 2003, Don't kiss off marriage, that deserves widespread distribution. Signed by thirty distinguished Canadians from across the spectrum of religious and ethnic backgrounds, it offers a superb analysis of the most recent initiatives of the Ontario Court of Appeal and the swift response of the Government of Canada regarding the redefinition of marriage. Sensitively but clearly it signals the threat facing any society that ignores the norms of traditional sexual ethics.