Issues Facing Missions Today 59: Exercises in Simple Logic: A Response to the Archbishop of Wales’ Defense of Same-Sex Relationships
Let us consider the logic of the outgoing Archbishop of Wales, Barry Morgan’s, recent defense of homosexual relationships.
The First Argument in Two Parts
The bulk of his argument—over half—is this: Since there are ‘different perspectives’ and ‘shifts in perspective’ within Scripture on several matters—parts of the Bible are at variance with other parts—‘there is no one settled understanding of what the Bible says about a number of subjects and … reading it as a whole can alter one’s total perspective.’ This argument has two parts—apart from any assessment of the examples of ‘variance’ that the Archbishop gives. First, it commits the fallacy of claiming that, because Scripture has different perspectives on several other topics, it also has different perspectives on the topic at hand. Must one really have to respond to this sort of argument? Surely one should simply look at the topic itself to determine whether there is any shift in perspective rather than examine possible shifts in other perspectives. One can imagine an analogous argument for, say, adultery in Scripture. The Archbishop’s logic might suggest that, because Scripture offers different perspectives on certain other issues, it therefore must have different perspectives on adultery, or bestiality, or incest. As it happens, Scripture uniformly condemns all these as well as homosexual acts. Or it might suggest that, because Scripture offers different perspectives on certain other issues, it must not be allowed to speak to concrete issues of any sort but only be read through the large lenses of a value ethic--in which case we must ask, 'Whose understanding of values?', as post-liberal, narrative ethicists already did in the 1970s and since.
The second part of the Archbishops first argument is that we need to interpret Biblical texts with principles rather than follow the teaching of concrete texts. (He might have said this more directly.) He will later in his speech argue in favour of a particular principle, which will be addressed anon. Here, we simply need to note that his argument is simply an assertion. How would one go about arguing the point, though? Surely one dimension of the discussion should be how the New Testament handles differences from the Old Testament. This would amount to coming to an understanding of how the early Christians in apostolic times interpreted their Scriptures. We might note that (1) the early Church affirmed the sexual ethic they found in their (Old Testament) Scriptures rather than reform it as they did some other issues (like circumcision, Jewish holy days, food laws, and sacrificial practices); (2) they appealed to specific Scriptures of the Old Testament on the issue of homosexuality rather than apply a general principle to them. On this second point, note that Jude 7 mentions Sodom’s sexual sin—not, by the way, inhospitality or failing to care for the poor and needy—in Gen. 19; Paul coins a compound word for homosexuality (arsenokoites in 1 Cor. 6.9 and 1 Tim. 1.10) that can only come from the Greek version of Lev. 20.13’s use of two words side by side (hence he was affirming Mosaic Law on the issue); and Jesus and Paul both appeal to Gen. 2.24 to affirm that the ground for sex and marriage is the ‘one flesh’ union of a male and female.
The Second Argument
A second of his arguments is that slavery is nowhere condemned in Scripture. There is ‘overwhelming biblical support for slavery,’ he claims, and ‘as an institution it is regarded [in Scripture] as being a good thing.’ Yet Christians have come to oppose slavery because, the Archbishop claims, Scripture stands against ‘oppression, domination and abuse.’ We see that ‘the Scriptures as a whole and the ministry of Jesus in particular … is about freedom from all that diminishes and dehumanizes people.’ There are several problems with this argument, however. First, the claims that slavery is nowhere condemned in Scripture and that the institution is regarded as a good thing are far too simplistic and are not accurate. Would the fact that the slave trade is condemned in the New Testament pose a problem for the Archbishop’s case (cf. Rev. 18.13 and 1 Tim. 1.10)? Would Paul’s encouragement to slaves to take advantage of the opportunity to gain their freedom pose a challenge to his conclusion (1 Cor. 7.21, reading the text as the ESV translates it in a way consistent with what Paul says in v. 23)? Would knowing a little about Roman slavery—that is, that manumission was not always as easy as one might wish and may even not have been possible in certain cases—not shed light on how unhelpful this comparison to homosexuality is? Would it be important to note how Paul’s reconfiguring the master-slave relationship (e.g., Philemon, Eph. 6.5-9; Col. 3.22-4.1) amounts to a challenge to the institution of slavery in fundamental ways? One does not have to appeal to a liberationist reading of Scripture in order to read against specific texts, for there are specific texts that raise questions about slavery. The matter is far more complicated than the Archbishop allows. Furthermore, there are no qualifications of homosexuality in Scripture, such as saying that it is to be approved in one form and not in another. Same-sex acts are out and out condemned as sinful. If the issue of slavery proves anything for Biblical interpretation, it is that one should guard against the pressure to read Scripture in service of the reigning culture—whether in service of slavery in the 19th century or homosexuality in the 21st century.
The Third Argument
The Archbishop then goes for checkmate. ‘So taking the Bible as a whole and taking what it says very seriously may lead us into a very different view of same-sex relationships than the one traditionally upheld by the Church.’ The key move he wishes to make is the claim that Biblical passages addressing the issue of same-sex relationships ‘are not about committed, loving, faithful monogamous relationships with persons of the same sex but about something totally different.’ Thinking to illustrate the point, the Archbishop reserves three entire sentences in his speech to deal with the Biblical data. In actual fact, he mentions but one passage, Gen. 19’s story of Sodom, which he takes to be about God’s destroying a city over improper hospitality or, more generally, failing to care for the poor and needy. He then asserts that the New Testament texts are really addressing pederasty and prostitution.
Let us suppose that the Archbishop has correctly interpreted the Biblical texts, even though no member of his audience has any reason to do so. But he apparently thinks that he has understood the Biblical texts and, incredibly, he believes that the texts actually were speaking about bad things that we should continue to oppose—bad hospitality, not caring for the poor and needy, pederasty, and prostitution. Why, then, does he spend the bulk of his argument trying to show that the Bible shifts perspectives and sometimes condones bad things like slavery? If he agrees with what he believes these texts say, why undercut his own argument by insisting that the Bible has various perspectives and sometimes needs to be interpreted by principles that speak against what specific texts say? One might have thought that he would argue that condemnation of homosexuality is a similar error to approval of slavery from a past, inferior culture, and we, a now evolved and morally superior race, need to reject those Biblical texts and the Church’s teaching in the past. But he instead argues that those texts actually were speaking about bad things that we should continue to oppose. So, which is it? Do we move on from inferior Biblical practices and views, or do we continue to affirm these Biblical texts because we like them?
To answer such a question, one would have to do more than what the Archbishop does. One would have to argue not that there is diversity in Scripture or that there are practices the Church no longer endorses but why the Church might take a particular interpretation. There are indications within the Archbishop’s talk that indicate how he would come to a conclusion, although he might have given real attention to these rather than develop contradictory arguments. One has already been stated: Scripture stands against ‘oppression, domination and abuse.’ Relatedly, he avers, ‘taking Holy Scripture seriously means paying attention to Jesus’ ministry of inclusivity’ and his affirmation of a ‘freedom from all that diminishes and dehumanizes people.’ Thus, what we have is an indication of his hermeneutic: read Scripture from the perspective of the values of inclusivity and liberation from abusive power, and reject reading Scripture for its concrete commandments unless they relate to these values.
The Archbishop adds an additional argument, or, shall we rather say, makes an additional claim: ‘for past generations, homosexual practice was seen as a moral failure because people had no understanding of human sexuality and how humans are formed biologically, psychologically and socially. For them, it was a disorder. We now know that sexual orientation is not a matter of personal choice but of how people are….’ This essay is concerned with the Archbishop’s logic, so a response that would actually examine the claim in light of ancient texts or the various currents of psychology on the issue needs to be addressed elsewhere. What might be said here is that he gives no proof of this statement and actually shows no awareness of the issues. Were he actually to investigate the matter, he would need to acknowledge that there was considerable discussion before and after the 1st century over whether same-sex attraction was a matter of nature or nurture. That is, writers in New Testament times were very much interested in the question of sexual orientation. Without any attempt to address the matter textually or historically, the Archbishop’s argument simply stands as an unsubstantiated claim. His claim that the New Testament authors did not have the concept of ‘committed, loving, faithful monogamous relationships with persons of the same sex’ also remains unsubstantiated. Does his view that such relationships are natural not conflict with his belief that people in antiquity did not engage in this? (If natural, why only today?) Would knowing that some ancient texts spoke of same-sex couples living together and even marrying affect his perspective that we have an advanced understanding in our day?
Could it possibly be that the reason for the Church’s interpretation through the centuries on the issue of homosexuality is that it has faithfully interpreted the Scriptures, that the authors of Scripture were of one mind on this issue and did speak directly to it, and that the basic conviction within Scripture about all sexual ethics is that the place for sex is within the marital union of a male and female?
 Barry Morgan, Presidential Address of the Archbishop of Wales to the Governing Body meeting at the University of Trinity Saint David, Lampeter, on 14 Sept 2016. Online: http://www.anglican.ink/article/archbishop-wales-declares-scriptural-support-same-sex-marriage (accessed 15 September, 2016).
 See S. Donald Fortson and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016).