The Bible on Singleness, Marriage and Homosexuality

traditional_marriageThe Primates of the Anglican Communion met in Canterbury in January to reflect and pray together concerning the future of the Communion. The majority of those gathered reaffirmed that “The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union.” A small minority of Anglican Primates were however, unable to do so. This in itself has serious implications, for what divides them is the question of ultimate authority in matters of faith and doctrine. Does it lie with church tradition, with experience, reason, secular cultural norms, or with the Scriptures? Our presuppositions inevitably shape our thinking. Here are five assumed in this paper.

Article 6 of the Church of England

“Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”

The Scriptures are God-breathed

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Ann Atkins has observed, “Scripture is not important enlightenment about God, but infallible revelation from Him. So we interpret our lives in the light of scripture, instead of the other way about.”

The Perspicuity of Scripture

The Scriptures were written to reveal God’s will and their meaning is intended to be clear and self evident. “Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say.” (John 8:43); “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18); “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?” (Mark 12:24).

The Need for Pastoral Sensitivity

Our common imago dei – that is – that we are created in the image and likeness of God means that it is sub-Christian to mistreat, abuse, or denigrate any person, irrespective of their race, colour, age, religion, gender or sexual orientation. The final Communique of the Anglican Primates meeting in Canterbury in January, emphasized that,

“The Primates recognise that the Christian church and within it the Anglican Communion have often acted in a way towards people on the basis of their sexual orientation that has caused deep hurt. Where this has happened they express their profound sorrow and affirm again that God’s love for every human being is the same, regardless of their sexuality, and that the church should never by its actions give any other impression.”

The Need for Diligent Bible Study and Expository Preaching

The apostle Paul writes to Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth… In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Timothy 2:15, 4:1-4)

The Scriptures address four aspects of the gender issue: creation, marriage, singleness, and homosexuality.

  1. Creation

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them… God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:26-27, 31). Three principles can be drawn from these verses.

1.1 Uniqueness

We are created in God’s image. This provides a basis for our uniqueness in relation to the animal world. Our self-worth is not based on possessions, achievements, physical attractiveness, or intellect. Instead it is based on our being created with meaning, purpose and dignity in God’s image.

1.2 Complementarity

Genesis 1:27 affirms that men and women are equal in the sight of God, made by him, for him, and male and female both together reflect the image of God.  Although men and women are equal, “Equality and identity are not to be confused” (John Stott). We complement one another in the distinctive qualities we associate with being male and female.

1.3 Completeness

Genesis 1:26 refers to our ontological wholeness being made in the likeness of God. Human beings are complete whether single or married. God saw all that he had made and declared it “very good”. The Bible has much to say to the single person, to the widow, the orphan and the eunuch. So uniqueness, equality, complementarity and completeness flow from our being created in the image of God.

2. Marriage

“The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him… For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” (Genesis 2:18-25). At least five conclusions can be drawn on the complementary roles of male and female as husband and wife:

2.1 Marriage is ordained by God as the union of a man and woman

Genesis 2 defines God’s pattern for human relationships:  “For this reason (because we are male and female) a man shall leave his father and mother (the family of his birth) and be united with his wife (thereby forming, together with his wife, a new family) and they will become one (indissoluble) flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

2.2 Marriage is intended to be a life-long union between a man and woman

Jesus stressed the permanence of marriage with these words, “Therefore what God has joined together let no one separate.” (Mark 10:9). The lifelong nature of marriage is conveyed by the well-known words of the marriage vows, “till death us do part.”

2.3 Marriage between a man and a woman creates a new family

When a man and woman are joined in marriage they form something that is greater than themselves – they form a new family with a unique identity. God’s intention is to bless and enrich couples through mutual comfort as they live together in faith and love. It is a new relationship that all should honour, with trust and fidelity, forsaking all others. Jesus said, “so they (husband and wife) are no longer two but one.” (Mark 10:8).

2.4 Marriage between a man and a woman is a public relationship

”Marriage should be honoured by all” (Hebrews 13:4). The instruction to “leave his father and mother” in Genesis 2 indicates that marriage was intended to be a public event, made before witnesses. This is so that the community can acknowledge the couple’s intention is to live together for life, respect and support it. Details are recorded in a register to protect the legal rights of both partners as well as future children.

2.5 Marriage between a man and a woman is God’s design for a healthy society

”Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” (Hebrews 13:4). God wills that sexual relations take place exclusively within marriage between the husband and wife so that, if it be his will, children are born and nurtured within a secure family created by the union of their parents.  Sexual relations outside a covenant and life-long relationship between a man and a woman are consistently forbidden throughout Scripture.  “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10) 

  1. Singleness

Jesus was single. There is no greater justification for the gift of singleness than the pattern and example of our Lord Jesus Christ. Singleness is a gift of God. When the disciples questioned Jesus teaching on the permanence of marriage, Jesus said, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” (Matthew 19:11-12).

Paul elaborates on this in his first letter to the Corinthians, and encourages people to remain single (and thereby celibate) because they can devote themselves to the Lord’s service without distraction: “Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for you to remain as you are. Are you married? Do not seek a divorce. Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. … I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 7:25-35).

Chaste singleness then is a gift of God, if it can be accepted as such, providing an opportunity to serve the Lord, unhindered by marital responsibilities.

  1. Homosexuality

It is important to emphasize the distinction between homosexual orientation and behavior, between celibacy and sexual relations. It is unnecessary to speculate on the causes of homosexual orientation, merely to emphasize that Scripture does not prohibit homosexual orientation but practice. There are five main passages to consider:

Genesis 19:1-13

The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city…  Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom–both young and old–surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.” Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.” Get out of our way,” they replied. And they said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and now he wants to play the judge! We’ll treat you worse than them.” … They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door. The two men said to Lot, “Do you have anyone else here–sons-in-law, sons or daughters, or anyone else in the city who belongs to you? Get them out of here, 13 because we are going to destroy this place. The outcry to the LORD against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it.” (Genesis 19:1-13).

The New Testament commentary on this event is found in Jude 7: In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” (Jude 7). John Stott observes, “homosexual behaviour was not Sodom’s only sin; but according to scripture, it was one of its sins.”

Leviticus 18 & 20

“Do not have sexual relations with your neighbour’s wife and defile yourself with her. `Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the LORD. `Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable. `Do not have sexual relations with an animal and defile yourself with it.” (Leviticus 18:20-23). “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.” (Leviticus 20:13).

The prohibited behaviour listed in the Levitical holiness code was practiced by the indigenous population of Canaan, but was forbidden God’s people. Notice that it places homosexual practice between ritual infanticide and bestiality. No distinction is made between ‘promiscuous’ and ‘monogamous’ homosexual relationships.

Romans 1:18-32

“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness…  Therefore, God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator–who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones.  In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion…” (Romans 1:18-32)

The Apostle is describing the prevailing immorality of Graeco-Roman society out of which Christians have been called. On three occasions (vv. 24, 26, 28), Paul writes “God gave them over” to their depraved mind and decadent culture. Their behaviour is described as perverted because it is unnatural and indecent. The word “unnatural” means “the departure from the created order”. What is natural is defined by creation not culture.  A comparison between Romans 1:23 and Genesis 1:26 reveals the striking use of the same terms such as ‘likeness’, ‘image’, ‘human’, ‘birds’, ‘four footed animals’ and ‘reptiles’.  Paul’s use of creation terminology shows that he understood both idolatry and same-sex intercourse to be the rejection of God’s creation order.

 1 Corinthians 6:9-11

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

The reason this issue before us today is so grave is because it is a gospel issue. This passage clearly states that without repentance, those who engage in same sex genital acts will not inherit eternal life. This issue has implications for the saving work of Jesus Christ. What did he save us from and what did he save us to?  The assumption is that Christians in Corinth had repudiated their past behaviour. “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:11)

1 Timothy 1:9-10
“We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine.” (1 Timothy 1:9-10).

The word translated “for those practicing homosexuality” is the same word used in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and translated “men who have sex with men”. Notice again, Paul places this sin between murderers, adulterers and slave traders.

Nicky Gumbel summarises the NT teaching: “Taken together St Paul’s writings repudiate homosexual behaviour as a vice of the Gentiles in Romans, as a bar to the kingdom in Corinthians, and as an offence to be repudiated by the moral law in 1 Timothy.” (Nicky Gumbel, Searching Issues p.82).

  1. Conclusions

This brief review of passages of scripture has shown unequivocally and unambiguously that homosexual practice (in distinction to orientation), is incompatible with the Christian faith.  This is the position of the Church of England.

At the Lambeth Conference in 1998, Resolution 1:10 on human sexuality affirmed.

  1. in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage;
  2. recognises that there are among us persons who experience themselves as having a homosexual orientation. Many of these are members of the Church and are seeking the pastoral care, moral direction of the Church, and God’s transforming power for the living of their lives and the ordering of relationships. We commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and we wish to assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ;
  3. while rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture, calls on all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation and to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals, violence within marriage and any trivialisation and commercialisation of sex; cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions.”

This position was reaffirmed by the majority of Primates meeting in Canterbury in January. They also acknowledged that “Recent developments in the Episcopal Church with respect to a change in their Canon on marriage represent a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our Provinces on the doctrine of marriage.”

The Right Revd Peter Jensen, the retired Archbishop of Sydney, points out that, “this Anglican debate boils down essentially to the question of the authority Christians give to Scripture, and the way they read it… the historic understanding of the Christian faith, not just by Anglicans but by Christians throughout the world, is caught well in the Lambeth Resolution for which ninety percent of the bishops of the Anglican Communion voted in 1998. Resolution 1:10 rejected “homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture” and further it stated that it “cannot advise the legitimizing or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions”.

He went on to say,

“The biblical texts teach that God created men and women and blessed them in life-long, heterosexual marriage. So important is the positive teaching that it is reinforced by the negatives against all other forms of sexual activity outside this norm. This has always been the plain meaning and reading of the Scripture and the historic understanding of the Christian church… Obedience to the word of God is not a theoretical or academic matter. It is a matter of deepest obedience to the One who made us. By the grace of God there is forgiveness for breaches of God’s standards and divinely empowered strength to live chastely. But we fail God and we do no service to our fellow men and women by saying or implying that God’s standards are other than they are, or that they are less than they are… In a way, the sexual behaviour of modern westerners resembles the promiscuity that characterised much of the Roman world. Around us we see despair and purposelessness among many of our younger contemporaries. We in the Christian churches serve them best by telling them God’s truth, with humility and love, but a love that is robust and genuinely caring. It is in humility, not arrogance, that a Christian affirms … that this is the way to please God.”

Nicky Gumbel emphasizes, “It is vital to note that nowhere does the Bible condemn homosexual orientation, homosexual feelings or homosexual temptation. Temptation is not sin. Jesus was “tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). What the Bible condemns is not homosexual preference but homosexual practice. Jesus took the Scriptures as his authority and if Jesus is our Lord, then we must follow him.” (Nicky Gumbel, Searching Issues, p.82).

This brings us to the heart of our compassion for people, whether single or married, heterosexual or homosexual. We really do not love people if we are not willing to tell them what God has said about human sexuality. We truly love people when we share with them God’s grace and truth revealed in Jesus Christ; when we show them how much God loves them that he sent His Son Jesus to die in their place; when we urge them to repent and turn to a new and living hope.

The Anglican Communion is at a crossroads.  Jesus spoke about such a crossroad.

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13).

May God give us the wisdom to choose the right path, however unfashionable or unpopular, and by his grace, continue to lead others with love, grace and mercy, through the narrow gate that leads to eternal life.

This discussion paper was prepared for a meeting of Christ Church Parochial Church Council, Virginia Water, held in January 2016.